The best books on why looking for your ‘true self’ is pointless

Adam Ellwanger Author Of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self
By Adam Ellwanger

Who am I?

I'm a professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston – Downtown. In addition to my academic research, I write political and cultural commentary for a variety of right-of-center online publications. Much of my own work focuses on how individuals come to be persuaded about who they are. I argue that much of the frustration people feel when searching for their authentic identity is due to the fact that the existence of the hidden ‘true self’ is an illusion. The quest for authenticity is never complete. The good news, though, is that you can put an end to the suffering… only if you’re willing to give up the fevered pursuit of the “true self.”


I wrote...

Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self

By Adam Ellwanger,

Book cover of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self

What is my book about?

My book traces the history of a concept called metanoia, from ancient Greece to the twenty-first century. Metanoia, simply put, is a name for the various ways that people use language to form a new personal identity. Certainly, you’ve heard people say “I’m not that person anymore!” or “I feel like a whole new person!” Further, high-profile individuals like Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have recently attempted very public transformations of who they are. My book tries to answer one question: “When a person tries to convince others to recognize a new identity as his/her ‘true self,’ how is language used to accomplish that goal?” 

As I analyze examples of this phenomenon, I develop a theory of why some people succeed in convincing others to recognize their new identity, while others do not.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery

By Joseph E. Davis,

Book cover of Chemically Imbalanced: Everyday Suffering, Medication, and Our Troubled Quest for Self-Mastery

Why this book?

Davis tackles the way that depression or sadness came to be medicalized. He reminds us that these feelings are normal, integral parts of the human experience and analyzes how modern people started to view those emotions as abnormal, psychological conditions in need of pharmaceutical treatment. In his account of conversations with people who use anti-depressants, Davis shows that the medicalization of sadness can actually compound the suffering of people who struggle with depression. Is it really normal to be happy all the time? This book suggests it might not be.


Against Authenticity: Why You Shouldn't Be Yourself

By Simon Feldman,

Book cover of Against Authenticity: Why You Shouldn't Be Yourself

Why this book?

Feldman’s title does not conceal his aims: this book presents a criticism of the ideal of authenticity as the highest order of self-expression. That said, much of the book is a careful explanation of how authenticity came to be so highly valued, and it catalogs the positive societal aspirations of authenticity when it is framed as a personal virtue. The concluding chapter offers a supremely-reasoned elaboration of four separate arguments against authenticity, after which Feldman invites us to start “looking outward,” rather than inward.


The Pursuit of Happiness

By Howard Mumford Jones,

Book cover of The Pursuit of Happiness

Why this book?

This is an older book that traces the development of the American definition of happiness from the founding of the nation until the mid-twentieth century. Jones carefully illustrates that happiness transformed from a collective political concept to an individual moral entitlement. His reading of self-help texts shows that earlier Americans tried to achieve happiness by learning to conform themselves to the obligations imposed on them by others outside the self. In contrast, Jones’ investigation shows that the modern understanding of happiness demands individual liberation from the expectations of others, a feat achieved by listening to the internal desires of the self.


The Ethics of Authenticity

By Charles Taylor,

Book cover of The Ethics of Authenticity

Why this book?

If you want to learn about the history of the concept of authenticity and how it is understood in the western world, this is probably the best book to read (after my book, of course!). Charles Taylor is one of the most prominent living philosophers of selfhood, and this book (topping out at only a little over 100 pages) is an easy-to-read digestion of the ideas that he elaborated in his much-longer book Sources of the Self. Taylor is ambivalent about whether personal authenticity is a good or a bad thing in our era. He recognizes the harms imposed by some of the debased forms that it takes in modern society, but Taylor also tries to articulate an ethics that could rehabilitate authenticity in a way that affirms the dignity of and respect for each individual. I don’t like the fence-sitting, but this remains required reading.


The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

By Carl R. Trueman,

Book cover of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

Why this book?

While Trueman reviews some of the ideas covered by other thinkers on this list, his new book is notable because it focuses on how personal sexual identity (sexual orientation, gender, desire, etc.) came to be the most important site for the expression of individualism. His analysis underscores the threat that a radically subjectivized sexual ethic posed to longstanding social norms and cultural traditions. This one also includes a gushing foreword by best-selling author Rod Dreher of The American Conservative magazine.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in modernity, Europe, and the Soviet Union?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about modernity, Europe, and the Soviet Union.

Modernity Explore 26 books about modernity
Europe Explore 497 books about Europe
The Soviet Union Explore 226 books about the Soviet Union

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Long Shadow, Vermeer's Hat, and One-Dimensional Man if you like this list.