There’s a piece of advice I’ve gotten, and maybe you have, too.
It’s mostly given out as advice for social situations, like to make a good impression on that guy or girl you’re interested in, when meeting new people at a party, or when you’re about to enter kindergarten and are worried about if the other kids will like you.
I don’t know if little Mark with his backpack was given this advice when he was about to enter school for the first time, but I have this image of a mom kneeling down in front of her child who’s a little scared – maybe it’s from a movie or kids’ show. But she kneels and says, “It’ll be ok, honey, just be yourself.”
This is probably some of the most widespread advice ever given. It’s right up there with the golden rule of treating others like you want to be treated.
It sounds so easy! Two words! Simple.
Or is it?
This is one of those things that’s easier said than done. Because the person leaves out a significant chunk: How?
How do I be myself?
Be yourself is advice accompanied by the best of intentions, but it’s misguided, just like New Coke, The Star Wars prequels, and the No Child Left Behind education act.
Yes, that’s right. I’m saying be yourself isn’t good advice. In fact, it might even be terrible advice.
First, because it’s impossible to be anyone but yourself.
Or to put it this way, from a question I recently read (but can’t remember where): “If you’re not being yourself, then who are you being?”
If I’m not being myself, did I suddenly turn into Richard Branson or Beyonce? Or maybe I turned into a friend from fourth grade, that coworker I don’t like, or my parents?
All of that’s ridiculous. We can’t be anything but ourselves. If we’re happy, we’re being ourselves. If we’re sad, we’re still ourselves. Even if we’re being inauthentic, or a liar, or a thief, or worse, a politician, we’re still being ourselves.
So what’s up with that advice to be yourself, then?
The advice is misguided because our idea of “self” is misguided. When that advice is given, what the person really means is, “Behave the way I see you behave.”
Be yourself is problematic for a few reasons:
- It depends on how the other person sees you.
- Behavior depends on context.
- The “self” is an illusion created by our brains. Woah.
To “be yourself” implies there’s a single way for you to behave across multiple scenarios.
Picture a teenage boy. In high school. Let’s call him Tommy. There’s a girl Tommy likes and wants to ask out. He has a lot of friends, all guys, and they do stuff like play video games, sports, and he’s rowdy and obnoxious with them.
At home, Tommy’s actually really quiet and studious. His parents appreciate how polite and well-mannered he is.
He asks his friends what he should do, and one of them says, “I dunno, just be yourself.”
He asks his parents, and his mom says, “Honey, just be yourself.”
Tommy’s friends like how he is around them.
Tommy’s parents like how he is when he’s around them.
But his behavior is completely different depending on the context, and the whole thing leaves Tommy feeling confused and wondering who he really is and throws him into an existential crisis.
Ok, maybe not that last part.
Here’s the thing though – In both situations, Tommy is still Tommy. He acts different in each one, but he never stopped being Tommy.
(Now, you might be having an objection at this point about how he might not be behaving in a way that’s “true” to himself, and I’ll get to that in a bit)
We behave differently depending on the environment.
At home, at work, out with your friends, at dinner with your parents, and so on.
If we behaved the same in every single situation, it’d be a disaster – I went out with a friend this past weekend to play laser tag. If I treated him and those kids and teenagers I ruthlessly shot lasers at like my girlfriend, I’d be in prison!
And if I treated my girlfriend like those kids – sneaking around corners, and then ambushing her over and over with a laser gun – I’d be out on the street (or at least sleeping on the couch).
And yet, this advice “be yourself” lends itself to just that. Adapting to different situations doesn’t mean you stop being yourself or stop being authentic, it means you have social intelligence and aren’t a giant asshole.
You can look at it from an evolutionary standpoint: species that stay consistent die off, and the ones that adapt survive.
The idea of having “a single self” isn’t only harmful, it’s also not how our brains work.
In the neuroscience book, “Buddha’s Brain” by Dr. Rick Hanson, he talks about how our sense of self actually happens in different places in our brain depending on the context.
So we literally have different selves right in our brain! The brain, Dr. Hanson, says, links those different selves together to give the illusion of continuity. He compares it to watching a movie: a film is made out of thousands of individual still pictures. When you put them altogether, it forms a coherent moving image.
Add in the fact that our brain is constantly changing. Norman Doidge wrote the book, “The Brain That Changes Itself.” Our brains are constantly generating new neurons, creating new synaptic connections, and losing synaptic connections.
Our brain changes. It grows. It learns. It strengthens connections and weakens others. And it does that up until the day we die.
Absolute consistency is impossible.
You might behave similarly between day to day (or else our personality would be constantly changing) – but you’re not the exactly the same person you were ten years ago, let alone last year or even yesterday.
Now, I mentioned earlier about the whole, “Being true to yourself,” thing. This is important, but it’s a question of staying true to your values. Different things are important to all of us. I very much value respect. I’ll always have that value of respect, but how I express it might change with the context.
For instance, if I walked down the street shooting everyone with lasers, I wouldn’t be very respectful. But in the right context (paying to fire lasers at children in a maze) it’s cool. So “staying true to ourselves” is really acting in accordance with our values.
If we’re not acting in line with our values, it feels uncomfortable and can cause Cognitive Dissonance. It doesn’t mean you stopped being yourself – unless you suddenly turned into Tyler Durden – it just means you acted out of alignment with your values. It doesn’t feel good, sure, but you’re still you, even if it feels like you’re not.
When we say something like, “I don’t feel like myself today,” it doesn’t mean that we’re not being ourselves, we might just be deviating from our comfort zone, or how we normally feel – like if I’m starting to feel sick. Or if I’m dehydrated, or if I’m getting hangry.
If we start learning a new skill, confronting a fear, or going into that party with all those people we’ve never met before, we may feel out of sorts as well – we’re just stepping outside of our comfort zone. And often, that’s a good thing.
Some people use this as an excuse to stay within that comfort zone, saying, “That’s just not me.” It might not be your current self, but if you want it to be, like in the case of learning a new skill or changing a behavior, your brain can adapt and develop new connections.
So don’t use that as an excuse to back out of something you want to do or can really benefit you.
With our illusion of “self” and our constantly changing brains, the advice, “Be yourself,” is silly.
Instead, answer the question, “In this situation, how do I want to be?”
And then learn, adapt, grow, and find a way.
Have an example of when someone told you to be yourself or gave you other misguided advice? Tell it to me below!