I can pinpoint the exact moment my existential crisis began.
I was about 7 or 8, and was preparing for a school performance, when a family member said to me "just be yourself". I'm sure they were trying to be helpful, but in that moment my innocent child-brain exploded.
"Be yourself." Well, who is that exactly? I can be quiet or noisy, naughty or nice, friendly or sullen, kind or selfish. And the further I went through life, the worse it got. Blessed with curiosity and an open mind, I scurried down many different paths. I hung out with socialists and anarchists. I embraced the New Age and danced to save the earth (don't ask). I explored my artistic side and dabbled in bohemianism. I read poetry and philosophy and politics. I watched football and collected antique books. I raged against consumerism and bought a ridiculous number of tea cups. I became a sensible mother and danced like crazy in a mosh pit. So which was the real me?
"Who am I really?" We ask that question as if there is going to be a neat, definitive 25-word-or-less response. It took me a good 30 years of angst and confusion to realise that the only sensible answer to that question is "lots of different things".
The key to cultivating an authentic life is embracing our messiness and complexity. Each of us is a crazy muddle of likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, quirks and contradictions. We are too nuanced and interesting to be categorised by simplistic personality categories or social stereotypes. We might wear Chanel No. 5 with gumboots, or watch wrestling while sipping tea from a Royal Doulton cup. We can read Sartre then flick on Doctor Who. We can scream ourselves hoarse at a rock concert one night and dress up for the opera the next. It's all good! It's all us. No explanation required.