A professor at our small Maine college made some people a bit nervous. Jon Goldstein was then a big burly guy who rode a heavy motorcycle and spoke my native-Bronx “tell-it-like-it-is” language. We became fast friends.

Beneath his gruff exterior, Jon is a kind-hearted person. When his truth-telling edges weren’t apparent, some gave him credit for unexpectedly pleasant behavior. Noting my candor, my husband named this the “Goldstein Effect”: If people expect you to confront them with hard truths and you don’t, they think you’re a saint.

Still, Jon and I prefer to risk disapproval with unvarnished truth about major matters rather than put forth a less-than-honest “best self” that’s more palatable. Consider Rep. Liz Cheney, who, in speaking the truth about the presidential election results, had her Republican-leadership head severed. Perhaps she blindsided lawmakers by not putting forward her best true-to-Trump self, even if she’s been true to herself – and us.

As a psychologist, I’ve long wondered whether we each have a true self, or even a best self. Philosopher Daniel Dennett maintained that the self is merely a “center of narrative gravity” – a fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. That’s not obvious, either. What about personality?

Psychologists understand personality as a set of underlying traits that drive a consistent behavioral style. Yet traits may not determine our behavior in some situations, making each person appear somewhat inconsistent. In doctors’ waiting rooms, I’m demure; inside the consultation room, I ask many, annoying-for-some-docs, questions. Which of these behaviors reflects either my true self or my best self? What’s best for me – getting the whole truth – may necessitate pushy behavior that’s not always appreciated.

Although Donald Trump’s incorrigible lying was on full display during the 2016 campaign, many hoped the office would change him for the better. Yet the presidency seemed only to embolden his reckless acts. If he has a true self, it’s not prone to truth telling.


We typically think we have an authentic self to which we can stay true or not. Such statements as “He hasn’t been himself lately” means we see someone acting in ways that depart from what we think their true self is.  Similarly, “I didn’t know she was that kind of person” suggests surprise about someone’s behavior, given our notions of their true self.

Nonetheless, deciding how to respond to such familiar advice as “be your true self” and “put your best self forward” can be difficult. How can we be true to something that – if Professor Dennett is correct – doesn’t exist? And trying to put our best self forward suggests we each possess multiple selves, rather than one true self. (Though an acquaintance once unwittingly proclaimed, “Sooner or later every chameleon shows its true colors!”)

Making matters more complex, being true to yourself can oppose what you think putting your best self forward entails. I might think that my best self has softer “soles,” but sometimes treading more softly has taken me to places I’d rather not be.

Because we can make course corrections throughout our lives, we’re not stuck with one trajectory. But we’re also not infinitely malleable. I couldn’t become a laid-back person if my life depended on it. Yet I can choose to soften my truth-telling edges – not least in situations that call for tact. Or I can choose not to soften them, in light of different goals in different situations. There’s nothing inauthentic about adjusting one’s behavior to meet situational specifics.  Indeed, behavioral flexibility is a hallmark of mental health.

When wanting to make a good impression I can try to hide my edges altogether. But sooner or later they’re likely to appear. Then I’m open to accusation of dishonest self-presentation. Being a person isn’t easy.

Allowing my edges to show (within reason) allows others to decide whether to befriend me or not. It diminishes the likelihood of blindsiding someone with unexpected behavior they can’t accommodate. And I can relax when I’m with those who find my forthrightness (my true self?) charming, or at least tolerable, given the virtues I’m told I possess. If only the politicians who’ve advanced Trump’s lies had edges that included telling the truth too much.

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