Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The "Be Yourself" Fallacy

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear for most any situation is to "just be yourself."

There's something to that advice, but like any phrase that begins with "just" it's never as simple as people make it out to be, and I think it's irresponsible to assume it has universal application.

"Be yourself" is advice I would only give in a specific situation: when a friend is nervous about talking to someone (a romantic interest, a job interviewer, a personal hero) and doesn't know what to do. In that instance, "be yourself" really means "be that friendly person that I can talk to easily." To me, a friend's "self" is that aspect of themselves that makes me want to be their friend in the first place. They're not nervous about talking to me (probably), and that's the side of yourself that you want to show to people, especially when you're nervous.

Outside of that specific instance, though, I wouldn't recommend offering that advice. The phrase "just be yourself" is filled with more questions than answers.

What am I? Who am I, really? What collection of facts and traits make up Charlie?

Answering that question is both incredibly complex and deceptively simple.

The fact is that there's really no answer to that question. What you are, who you are, is constantly changing. You are, at any given moment, more than you'll ever be able to grasp before that moment slips away. And that's the way it should be: the core of yourself should be open to change.

Unfortunately, people often find an answer to that question, of identifying their "self." Or, to be accurate, they decide on a self. Deciding on an identity is a relief in many ways, since you then have a clearer idea of what to expect from yourself. The problem, though, is that by attaching yourself to an identity, you find yourself clinging to it even when your true self, that ephemeral quality that should change with new input, would otherwise have moved on.

I guess I shouldn't suggest that all identities are bad. Latching on to an identity for a while can provide some welcome structure to your sense of self for a while. Too little structure can lead to an existential crisis, which is a whole different mess.

However, we have to be willing to let go of those identities. That's how we mature as people: our "selves" find new input, paradigms shift, and we progress as a person from one identity to the next.

Which is where we come back to the "be yourself" problem. Unfortunately, people use that advice as a way to stubbornly hold onto identities that hold them back from maturity. Some people identify as being "stubborn" or "disorganized" or "an asshole" (yes, people proudly identify as being an asshole: see Dennis Leary), and the societal concept of "be yourself" gets taken to mean "this is how I am, and I can't be expected to change--people have to accept me for who I am or just stay away."

That attitude is harmful. It makes some people unrepentantly crass. Worse, it makes people who want to change feel like they can't--as if it doesn't matter what they aspire to, since deep down that's not what they'll ever be. It's false.

Much like a child who decides that they want to be an astronauts even though they don't know the first thing about space, people can learn and grow to be whatever they set their minds to. Or, more likely, they can decide to be one thing and start down that road, only to find themselves changed along the way, with a whole new set of priorities and aspirations that take them a completely different direction.

So, no, don't be yourself. Figure out what you want to be, and start working on becoming that. It won't be easy, it won't be fast, and it's probably not what you're going to want to be in the future, but it sure sounds a whole lot more productive than being yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment