Gold foil illustration of stars


The Anxiety of Not Knowing “The Real You”

Everyone around you seems to have such a vibrant color of personality. It shines through vividly in everything they do, from the shoes they wear, to the groceries they put in their cart, to the precise wording of a text wishing you a happy birthday. You’d think it would all seem generic, but somehow every detail is quintessentially them.

How strange, then, that your own experience doesn’t seem to be tinted with any particular vibe. Mostly you feel you do what you have to do, with little opportunity for embellishment. And when there is free rein to improvise, you find yourself feeding off other people’s moods, matching their tones and energies, just trying to get along or make it through the day. Inside your head, you imagine yourself as a shade of neutral gray that just happens to reflect whatever strong colors are nearby.

Of course, your family and friends would insist you’re anything but neutral, painting you with the same broad brush you use to paint them: you’re a sunny yellow, they might say, or a chill blue, a fiery red, an innocent pink, an edgy black. They’re not necessarily wrong; you do notice a certain quality threaded through your personality, and often find yourself playing into it, because it’s a lot easier to be cheerful or crabby or crazy or boring if everyone already thinks of you that way. The trouble is, each of them only ever sees you in isolated contexts, inhabiting certain roles at certain times. If anyone tried to shadow you through an entire week, they’d be astonished to see you as a serious professional, a sexual being, a spiritual person, a story-time goofball, a nervous wreck, or the life of the party. Each of their impressions may be accurate in the moment, but each reflects only a narrow band of the full spectrum of you.

Meanwhile, you shadow yourself twenty-four hours a day, in a variety of different situations. In what context are you most like yourself? Are you more or less authentic when you lose yourself in your work, pour your heart out to a friend, or are alone, just trying to clear your mind? Even then, you know firsthand how messy your moods can be, how scattered and contradictory your thought process, how many arbitrary urges you could obey at any given time. Whenever you stumble on a new situation, it’s hard to predict which version of you is going to emerge, or which opinion is going to tumble out from the gumball machine in your head—knowing it’ll carry the sheen of truth, as if all your other thoughts didn’t exist.

It makes you wish you could restore your self-image back to its essence. Painstakingly washing away the remnants of all the times you tried to be someone you’re not. Cleaning up areas where people tried to paint over you or ripped away qualities they didn’t like. Stripping down your identity, layer by layer, through all your habits and distractions and cultural programming, so you can finally reveal your true colors for all to see. But the more you look into who you are in isolation, the more your identity dissolves into a noise of random impulses—dust on a blank canvas.

Maybe there is no single self to speak of. Maybe you’re a shifting collage of many different personas, each as authentic as the next. A kaleidoscope of ever-moving fragments, reflecting a thousand little impressions of the world around you, with flashes of different moods and vibrant clusters of quirks—but no broader pattern.

Maybe you have no true colors. You’re not some finished painting, signed and sealed in varnish. If there is a “real you,” surely it’s the mess of paint on the palette: colors swirling and mixing and playing together, perpetually unfinished, searching and striving to make something new.

From an-, not + Latin Nosce te ipsum, “Know thyself.” Pronounced “an-oh-see-sha” or “an-oh-say- tyah.”













The Giltwrights