Self creation or self discovery?

Pushing Buttons by Luke Dorny

Who put that there?

What metaphor do you use to describe the development of your sense of identity or self knowledge?

Do you think about increasing self awareness as an act of self discovery? As you find out new things about yourself, are you just uncovering what is already there? Are you seeking to reveal more about your ‘true self’ so that you can make choices that are more consistent and authentic? Is your core self something that is determined by your past and mainly fixed?

Alternatively, do you think about increasing self awareness as a process of defining who you are and making choices about who you want to be? Are you involved in an on-going process of self creation, shaping your identity through your choices and experiences? Is your core self something malleable and open to infinite change?

The metaphor you are most drawn to (discovery or creation) can affect your sense of meaning, your well being, your ability to set personal goals and your response to failure.

Self discovery

Studies by Schlegel et al. (2011) indicate (unsurprisingly) that people who more closely identify with a ‘self discovery’ metaphor have a stronger belief in the idea of a consistent ‘true self’. As a result, for these people, meaning in life is linked more strongly with knowledge of the true self and use of that knowledge to inform judgements.

As a result of this link to meaning making, identification with a ‘self discovery’ metaphor may provide existential benefits such as a greater sense of well-being.

What does this mean for people who more closely identify with a ‘self creation’ metaphor where there is no assumption of a ‘true self’?

Self creation

Carole Dweck (1999) has identified a similar dichotomy in people’s theories about themselves. She calls these two theories entity or incremental mindsets.

With an entity mindset you believe that your abilities, such as intelligence, are pretty much fixed. You are born with a certain level of talent. As a result, you tend to be motivated by a desire to ensure that you are not seen to drop below a level of achievement appropriate to your talents (performance motivation). In this case, failure is seen as a threat to your sense of identity, to be avoided at all costs.

An incremental mindset assumes that your abilities can be changed through effort and practice. You may start out with a particular set of talents, but these can be augmented by choosing to work hard on developing them. As a result, you tend to be motivated by a desire to stretch yourself in desired directions (growth motivation). For people with this mindset, failure is a learning opportunity — useful feedback in the progress towards self-improvement.

An incremental mindset has been linked to greater ability to set and act on personal goals. The kind of approach motivations linked to an incremental mindset have been linked to greater job and life satisfaction than the avoidance motivations of the entity mindset.


Self discovery is linked to easier meaning making through the notion of ‘true self’ and self creation is linked to more life satisfaction through goal setting. Which is best?

  • Which metaphor do you most easily identify with?
  • Are they mutually exclusive?
  • Which metaphor do you assume to be true when you are working with clients and what impact might that have on their sense of meaning and goal setting?

Further reading

  • Schlegel, R., Vess, M. & Arndt, J. (2011). To discover or to create: Metaphors and the true self. Journal of Personality. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00753.x
  • Dweck, C.S. (1999). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.
    Philadelphia, PA: The Psychology Press.

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  1. #1 by Jim Bright on 25 June 2012 - 10:59

    1. Who is the “you” in this and what do you mean by “self”? If the “you” or “self” can be appraised in its entirety or can be consciously amended and constructed then this implies something beyond the “you” or “self” that is making these conscious choices.
    2. Dweck’s dichotomy has more than a whiff of straw man about it. How could ou determine between effort to maintain an idealized view of self or effort in pursuit of an idealized view of self? Is there any practical consequences that arise from these differences?

  2. #2 by Andy on 28 May 2014 - 11:19

    Off the top of my head, it seems to me that there are interesting parallels here between the Discovery metaphor and post-modernist concepts of internal validation – being true to yourself / who am I? – (as a process of self-identity formation), and the Creation metaphor linking to the more traditional modernist school of thought – what will others think? – (where self-identity links to attempts to live up to exteral validation by meeting recognised standards).

    • #3 by David Winter on 28 May 2014 - 12:18

      I’m not sure I agree with the parallels. Self-creation doesn’t have to be linked to what other people expect of you. It could be about what you expect from yourself that doesn’t match with the current reality. Either way it is about making yourself different from how you are now rather than trying to discover what is already there.

  3. #4 by Bogusław Kałka on 11 June 2014 - 01:14

    I’ve thought about it for a while and came to conclusion, that maybe these two metaphors are just the opposite sides of some continuum? And you have to choose not one over another (the “edge” options), but where you are on this continuum. With that explanation, you choose how many things are “set in stone” (discovery), and how many can you change, or develop, or even invent (creation). And, of course, in course of the life, or in different situations, you can slide more to one side or another…
    But that may be a point of view of “creation” type, which I’m probably more 🙂 (but I also believe, that without any kind of discovery, of knowing our base, there’s no creation – can’t build on nothing).
    (ps sorry about my english, it’s my second language)

    • #5 by David Winter on 11 June 2014 - 05:46

      Hi Boguslaw. I completely agree with you. I presented this as an “either/or” discussion for dramatic effect, but I think that any self-development is a complex mixture of self-discovery and self-creation.

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