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"Be Yourself" - What it Actually Means and Why It’s Not Just a Cliche

When a person moves throughout their life, there are many points where “be yourself” is the advice given. We all hear this at one point or another (dating, an interview, making friends) - just be ourselves and everything will work out. The thing is, in those moments that sentiment often falls on deaf ears; we think that they’re just trying to make us feel better, or that of course they would say that because they are family. My view is that this two word statement, “be yourself,” is actually great advice, but with a couple prerequisites.

We need to know who our true self is

One difficulty is that we don’t know who we are - when we don’t know what it is to be ourselves, that short and sweet statement turns into a complicated and jumbled mess. The unfortunate part is that we don’t look a little further to that seemingly unmanageable question: who am I? So instead of turning a blind eye, which does make that moment easier, I advocate for you to turn and face that question. Who are you? What is your authentic self? Is that something you can distinguish, or do you need help with the question? It’s a theme that I work with clients around all the time, even if it’s not explicit.

In therapy, when we talk about a client’s week and how it impacted them, we’re looking at their authentic self. When they express their raw feelings about a scenario or a fear, we’re looking at their authentic self. When they try new things in their life and talk about their experience, we’re looking at their authentic self. It’s not something that’s always easy to see or is obvious in its nature. It also can look different at different times, which is what makes it so confusing and at times frustrating. But it’s crucial to continue to try to learn about ourselves.

“I don’t like myself”

Or, you might say that you do know yourself, and you don’t like yourself, so why would you be yourself? And I would say that you don’t truly know yourself. When it comes to other people, there’s oftentimes little harm in saying that you don’t like another person (unless that person is influential in your life). However, not liking yourself is extremely hindering, painful, and many times inaccurate or unjustly biased. By that I mean you’re biased against yourself for whatever reason - it varies from person to person.

Maybe you received negative feedback when growing up from family or peers; maybe you’ve made some mistakes that you regret; maybe you look a certain way or your personality leans a certain direction. Regardless, any of these reasons can influence a person to say that they don’t like themselves - but they’re not seeing the whole picture, or at the very least not opening themselves to the idea that they could like themselves in the future.

If you received negative messages in the past, who were those messages by, what were they towards, and what’s your evaluation of their feedback now in the present? If you made mistakes in the past, have you atoned and learned from them? If you chronically criticize the way that you look physically or your personality, have you thought of what you do like about those two, or at the very least what isn’t so terrible?

We will often stay stuck in the negative ruminations, because there’s a sense of comfort in it - it can be much more comfortable to stay stuck in the mud than to try to get out. To challenge ideas that we hold about ourselves is a very uncomfortable thing to do, but it is absolutely needed because we’re our true self when we aren’t in the mud. We’re our true self when we can look at ourselves without a bias (negative or overly positive), and say this is who I am. Until then, you will continue to hide from the reality of yourself to your own detriment.

Ok, I know who I am. But what if others don’t like it?

This is often the toughest part, because it’s not in your control. Knowing who you are and liking it is mostly in your control, but having other people like the authentic you is almost entirely out of your control. So frequently we won’t know who we are because we’re preoccupied with impressing others so that they’ll like us - or rather, like the person we pretend to be. The challenge is to gain the amount of courage that’s needed to reveal ourselves, while recognizing that it’s a risk.

To be able to face that risk, we need to learn to tolerate rejection, be patient with ourselves, and let our resilience grow. The risk to this is experiencing rejection - it’s something that can be extremely painful. But the benefit surely outweighs the risk - not only feeling comfortable to be oneself in many situations, but also drawing other like-minded individuals to you. Authentic people are drawn towards others that are authentic, which can lead to some extremely fulfilling connections. The risk of rejection is scary, but the consequence of suppressing our true self is life-shattering.

Alright got it, there will be plenty of people who don’t like me, but sifting through those will help me find people who do like the authentic me. How do I start down that path?

First, we need to have some sort of support; this could be your family you’re close with, a friend or group of friends, a self-help support group, or a therapist, among others. But the requirement for these support systems is that you must feel comfortable to be yourself with them. If not, it defeats the whole purpose because you’ll then continue trying to be someone else.

Second, start to recognize times where you have urges to be more authentic. Maybe it’s with coworkers at work, acquaintances, or a romantic interest. If you’re used to wearing that mask to guard your authentic self, get in touch with the parts of you that want to act in a way that isn’t what the mask tells you to do.

Start listening to these parts more, and the third step is to choose times to act on them instead of the mask. Little by little you can reveal your authentic self, and see what happens; see what feelings or thoughts you have, and how others respond to you. This is why you have that support system: you’ll usually feel very vulnerable and exposed, and will need a safe place to go back to. You could also receive some negative feedback, which can be quite hurtful if you’re not used to rejection because you seldom put your real self out there.

Fourth is to continually learn about yourself and others, and give yourself credit for becoming more and more authentic. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time, effort, and patience, but the continual evolution of being true to yourself is more than worth it.

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