The phrase ‘be yourself’ is repeated so often that it has become a cliche. Whenever we’re stressing out about a job interview or making a good first impression, well-meaning friends and family members will tell us to ‘just be ourselves’.
I can’t be the only one who has always found this advice frustrating. I suspect many of us just don’t know what it means to be ourselves. And it’s something I think I’m only just starting to figure out.
Widespread confusion about this has sparked the idea of ‘finding yourself’, which has become an eye-roll-inducing cliche in its own right! And I have become confused all over again about what it means to ‘find yourself’ and how exactly you’re supposed to do it.
So why are so many of us confused about something as fundamental as who we are? There are a few factors at play.
Have you ever noticed that you behave completely differently around different people? You may be lively and playful with your kids but calm and professional at work, for example. Or maybe some friends bring out your crazy fun-loving side, whilst others stimulate debate and deep discussions.
Does this mean that you must be faking some of your traits, if they appear to be contradictory? How can you tell which ones are genuine?
The answer, of course, is that you’re probably not making anything up. We all tend to behave in completely different ways with different people. That’s because the way someone interacts with us, and the dynamic between them and us, naturally shapes our behaviour. Most researchers who have studied this topic agree that there is no one ‘true self’. So no wonder we’re so confused!
Culture and self
The situation is further complicated by the influence of culture. Some cultures value extroversion, for example, and so many people in these cultures will display extroverted traits. Other cultures are the other way around. And this applies to many other traits too. It’s virtually impossible to separate ourselves from the environment we grew up in. Our culture and those around us have a huge influence on how we develop.
What is the authentic self?
All this makes it tempting to declare that self as a concept is useless and should be abandoned. But I feel it depends on what we think of as the self.
All too often, we define who we are by what we like and dislike, how we look, where we work and so on. None of these makes us who we are, but I do believe it is possible to form a deeper sense of self based on authenticity and values.
I told the story before of I how I studied computer science at uni, thinking I should do something that would get me a good job. The uni tried to push me into doing a placement at an investment bank or a software development company. But after a few mind-numbing sessions of listening to company representatives drone on about how great it was to work there, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I knew it wouldn’t be true to myself to take on any of those placements, and I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I dropped out of the placements program, and ended up leaving uni too. That decision, inspired by a friend of mine who encouraged me to follow my truth, was based on a deeper recognition of what my core values were. In other words, I realised that I am a creative and free-spirited person, and working in an investment bank would probably have destroyed me! Underneath our egos, we all have some deep-seated core values like compassion, perseverance and groundedness. And if we derive our sense of self from these, we are much more likely to live and behave in an authentic way.
This is another phrase that sounds kind of cheesy, but I’m coming to believe that personal growth just means learning to live in line with your core values, like the ones I mentioned above. When we do this, we begin to live with intention, becoming driven to pursue the life we want. We realise the value of having a purpose in life, beyond making money or simply surviving. And we stop letting our fears, doubts and insecurities hold us back and dictate how we live.
Living authentically and with intention benefits us in so many ways. Tough situations become challenges rather than threats. Life begins to go our way. We are happier, have better relationships, laugh more. We act with integrity, because we know our values. And we become confident in our strengths and abilities, because we are grounded in who we are. That, to me, is what being yourself is all about.