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Why our obsession with self-expression is ridiculous

As a society we are obsessed with expressing ourselves, thinking that our happiness depends on our ability to do so. Here’s why I think ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy.

Self expression is closely related to self-construction, and by this I mean the reflexive process of actively picking, choosing and attaching myself to those objects, people and activities which ‘I’ think are desirable and developing a notion and coming to understand ‘myself’ as something tangible and meaningful which is fundamentally tied up with these things. The expressive element of self-construction involves any means whereby you ‘communicate’ something about yourself to the world: It is that process of reflecting on what you like and dislike about the actions, aspirations and opinions of others, and then identifying with or against some of these actions, aspirations and opinions, and finally deciding which of these is identifications is worth ‘shouting about’ – hence expressing yourself.[1]

What I refer to as ‘the game of self-expression’ is widely celebrated in modern Britain. We see its practise in both the public and private realms of the tangible social world, from the high street and the night club, to our living, dining and bedrooms; and we see it in the hyperreal domains of virtual worlds, from the professionally orchestrated world of popular culture to the user-generated world of Facebook. There are many different ‘selves’ out there being expressed and many numerous ways of expressing ‘one’s self’ – but the message is clear, whatever self-identity you choose to construct, and by whatever means you choose to express it – you should express that self loud and clear for others to see.

Our culture compels us to express ourselves – Our very happiness seams to rest on our ability to not only figure out ‘who’ we are, but also, crucially, on our ability to adopt successful strategies for  proclaiming this unto the world – happiness lies in self-expression, misery in self-chastity. This notion of self-expression as being crucial to human happiness is something that goes largely unquestioned. In fact, the very discourse of happiness is infused with the ideology of self-expression – One of the most widely accepted indicators of happiness is the extent to which you are free to express your ‘true self’.

For many of us, our unconscious ‘vision of happiness’ is of someone actively engaged in an activity that involves them vivaciously ‘expressing themselves’ – Media types singing, dancing and having a jolly good time on the studio set being one archetype, but at a more mundane level this might involve visions of oneself engaging whatever leisure activities reflects one’s own personal preferences –sport, art, dance, holidaying, religion, politics, or a more exciting mixture of any of the above. Conversely, we pity those who are not free to express themselves – Everyone from veiled Muslim women to Mummy’s boys whose identities have been stifled by motherly love; we pity them, because they have been cut off from playing the game of self-expression.

In fact, so integral is ‘the self’ to our notions of happiness, that the very act of ‘constructing myself’ is itself is viewed as something that makes one happy – This could mean shopping for clothes, the hour or more ritual of getting ready to go out, which effectively involves painting a particular ‘image’ on oneself, or it might mean the more ‘day to day’ business of updating one’s Facebook status. So crucial is our success at expressing a social identity to our happiness, that there is even an industry built up around it – of personal shoppers, body language experts and life-coaches and so dominant is the idea that ‘constructing and expressing the self is crucial to happiness, that an inability to ‘successfully express oneself’ is seen as a reason for failure in all sorts of fields of life – most egregiously in pop programmes such as the X factor where one of the criteria fledging stars are judged on is their ability to ‘express their personality’ through their music, while back in the mundane world, some of us may fail in everything from job interviews to first dates because of our inability to express ourselves as someone worth knowing, irrespective (crucially) of who we really are.

The dominance of the ‘discourse of self expression is evident in the incredible array of ‘techniques of self expression’ that is available to us to ‘express ourselves’ – We find its logic in fashion, which has to be the most publically visible and the most obvious example of how we express ourselves – Many of us buy clothes not just for their functionality, but to say something about ourselves – or at the very least to ‘fit in’ with image-trends. Similarly, the houses in which we live are not just vessels to keep us warm and dry – they are vessels in which we store stuff that tells the story of ourselves – many of us live as if someone were going to look ‘through the keyhole’ – dressing up our living rooms, bedrooms, and even our kitchens, with objects that express something about ‘myself’.

I could spend pages listing the vast array of objects that are used to the ends of self expression, suffice to say for now there are many, and to just briefly comment on how far this logic of self expression has penetrated – even into the realms of our personal lives where relationships and family lives themselves have increasingly become about ‘self-expression’ – Consider how much time couples spend clothes shopping, decorating their house, or preparing themselves for evenings out – mutually reflecting on how best to express themselves as a ‘couple’.

It is hard to dispute the centrality of ‘the game of self-expression’ to modern social life, and it is similarly hard to dispute the notion that many of us expend considerable time, money and effort in both constructing and expressing ourselves in the belief that this effort will make us happy. Unfortunately, while our expressive indulgences might well make my believed to be tangible constructed self temporarily happy, in the long term, playing this game is more likely to perpetuate ignorance and misery.


Why ‘playing the game of self-expression’ won’t make you happy

Here I select three reasons why playing the game of self expression is unlikely to lead to true happiness. The first reason is that it perpetuates ignorance of the true nature of self, the second is that it encourages selfishness rather than compassion and the third reason is that it encourages fear and anxiety because of the contingent nature of ‘game’.

Firstly, and most importantly, playing the game of self-expression won’t make you happy because it contradicts the truth of the insubstantiality of self. In short, there is no essential self to express and thus constructing and expressing a self is merely an expression your denial or, more likely, ignorance of this truth.

From the point of view of Buddhism, all of futile hours you spend constructing and expressing your identity – all of those hours spent choosing your clothes, cultivating your special friendships, advancing your hobby and updating your Facebook page, all of this is nothing other than the projections of a deluded mind that is not at peace with itself and its true nature. Worse, not only is this practice the symptom of a deluded mind, it is also likely to lead to the perpetuation of this ignorance – because all of the time you spend reflexively constructing and expressing your social self, you are distracted from looking inwards, and quietly realising, through direct and immediate experience that you, the constructor, has no essential nature to express.

Secondly, happiness is unlikely to be forthcoming because the process of self expression is, by definition, inherently selfish, which is the antithesis of compassion. It is selfish because it presumes attention from others – An assumption that other people will give up their time to muse upon your constructed (and, remember, not really existent) identity. We dress a particular way, drive a particular car, or update our Facebook page expecting others to notice us – and the closer the ‘other’ to us, the more feedback we expect about the identities we express. The danger here is that if we receive attention, especially positive attention, from others about ‘my identity’ then all this will do is reinforce the deluded notion that ‘I’ matter more than everyone else, which is highly unlikely to be conducive to compassionate action where I act for the benefit of others.

The game is also selfish because it holds the potential for harming others. If we assume a reciprocal relationship where you reflect on my constructed identity in return for my reflecting on yours then there is also the potential for your own self-construction to harm others as you further reinforcing someone else’s ignorance of the true and insubstantial nature of their own self by reflecting on their mistakenly believed to be substantial social identity.

It is worth also reflecting briefly on how ludicrous playing the game is – If we generalise this selfish assumption – that ‘I’ matter’ and am worthy of the attention of others, then the situation becomes farcical, because in a society in which everyone expresses themselves thinking that others are looking at them, in reality no one would be looking at anyone in particular because everyone else would likewise be so wrapped up in their thoughts of how others are reflecting on them that they would, in fact, be too busy to notice anyone else.

The third, and for now final, reason that playing the game of self expression is unlikely to make you happy is that it is in fact a very fragile strategy for happiness. This is because the process of identity construction involves ‘me’ attaching myself to particular things – and when our identity, and thus our happiness is contingent on particular things, it is also fragile because these things can cease to be – Objects wear out or get lost or stolen, and people will die. The really tragic fact here is that the things I attach myself to do not actually have to be taken away for me to be miserable – quite often, the fear and anxiety at the possibility of their being removed are sufficient to make me miserable.

In reality, of course, this notion of expressing ‘myself‘through picking and choosing particular things to be of particular significance to ‘my identity’ is ridiculous because true nature is oneness with everything – something that can never be symbolically expressed.

The alternative to ‘playing the game of self-expression’, is to avoid playing it and to instead spend your time quietly and calmly looking inward, developing ‘right understanding’.

[1] Some sociologists might argue that the two acts of self-construction and self-expression are so interwoven as to effectively be the same thing, as the means whereby come to understand ourselves involves reacting to feedback to the social selves we express, consciously or unconsciously to the world. I use the two terms separately however, construction to refer to the process of literally that – constructing a self – this might be quiet and reflective, largely done in private, and by expressive I mean any aspect of myself already constructed that I forcibly project onto the world.