Scott H Young

Don’t Be Yourself


If there is one piece of self-help advice I wish would go away it is the advice to ‘be yourself’. The only think I dislike more than the proliferus usage of this phrase is how everyone seems to universally accept it as words to live by. It seems like every self-help author needs to append a chapter to their book describing why, above all else, you need to ‘be yourself’.

The problem with this little snippet of inspiration is the same with virtually all bad motivational sayings, it is too vague, ignores reality and in some cases can actually be harmful. As popular as this phrase is, I’m sure to get some angry comments from readers who believe I’ve lost it completely, so I want to ensure you that there is a reasoning behind my convictions. Moreover I want to make it clear that there is value to this advice even if it is disguised in it’s current form.

Why ‘Be Yourself’ is Misleading

So now that I’ve made my statement of conviction, I think it is time to back up exactly why I believe the suggestion to ‘be yourself’ should be abolished. Although being yourself seems like trustworthy advice, I believe it has a few problems.

How Can You Be Anything But Yourself?

The first problem with this advice is simply that you can’t be anything but yourself. No matter how you behave or act you are always you. This statement seems to imply that you sometimes do things that are ‘yourself’ and other times do things that are ‘not yourself’, as if there were some logical separation between those two categories.

At this point some of you are probably thinking, “Scott, you are taking this way too literally. Of course you can never be someone other than yourself, but you can act in ways that doesn’t reflect your true self. You can try to mask your personality or act like a fake.”

The problem with a statement such as this is that it seems to create some sort of artificial division between your behaviors. So when you lie, you simply aren’t ‘being yourself’. This is garbage. When you consistently deceive others the problem isn’t that you aren’t being yourself it is simply that you are deceptive. The ‘be yourself’ mantra seems to distill all the negative qualities of your personality as not being the real you.

The truth is there is only one you and that is the person who does all of your actions. Don’t push behaviors that are negative as not being the real you. You have to own all of your behaviors and actions, even those that are incongruent.

‘Being Yourself’ Can Cut Growth

There is a hidden trap within the statement to be yourself. This trap is that sometimes being yourself is an excuse that cuts you off from growth. Instead of taking responsibility for who you are and striving to evolve that, you can avoid doing the work by saying that those aspects are just part of the real you. Anything that cuts you off from experiencing a greater quality of life is bad advice, no matter how popular it is.

There are many experiences I wouldn’t have tried if I had stuck to the idea that I had to remain true to myself. As an shy and quiet child, public speaking would have definitely been something outside my boundaries. Today I love delivering speeches and attending Toastmasters. Had I stuck to the mantra of ‘just be yourself’ I probably would have excused myself out of a wonderful experience.

Although some of you may think that this is a misinterpretation of the original intention of the advice, it is an effect nonetheless. I have seen many people use the excuse that they needed to be themselves to avoid taking up many opportunities in their life. People who missed out on relationships, activities and experiences simply because doing so wasn’t ‘being themselves’.

The other aspect of this problem is that sometimes it is necessary to ‘fake it’ outside your comfort zone in order to transfer those traits to the ‘real you’. So even if you are normally very quiet and boring, you might have to start going to events and become enthusiastic and spontaneous so you can internalize those characteristics. In this case ‘being yourself’ is limiting you.

You Need to Evolve

The final problem I have with the advice to be yourself is simply that it assumes that ‘yourself’ doesn’t need any improvement. I haven’t met or heard of a single person on earth devoid of the need to improve. It is this need for growth that gives life meaning and I think it is ridiculous to assume that the answer to fix all flaws is simply to ‘be yourself’.

As I stated in my first argument, there is no artificial barrier separating your good from your bad traits, they are part of the whole. Similarly, there is no separation between the real you and all other behaviors. When you act like a jerk consistently, you are a jerk. Although it isn’t good to give yourself a label like that, you need to own those behaviors instead of just dismissing them.

Instead of the advice, ‘be yourself’ I think the proper saying should be, ‘be your best self.’ This is really what most people intend when they say this saying. This means be yourself, but without all that lying, sarcasm, shyness, negativity or other traits people don’t want to ascribe to the ‘real you’.

Your personality needs to evolve as you do. Don’t limit yourself by defining a set of characteristics that are the ‘real you’. Every personality characteristic of myself that I wanted to shift I have, so I believe strongly that you have a lot more control over your personality than you think you do. If there are aspects of your personality that are limiting the quality of your life, change them.

What is the Alternative?

Now I never write a post just to complain about something, so I want to leave you with something constructive as an alternative to ‘be yourself’. Aside from all the flaws that this ambiguous piece of advice leaves, it does impart some wisdom. Fortunately those pieces of wisdom can be better summed up in different advice, so we can scrap this convoluted and misleading suggestion.

You Are Who You Decide to Be

Don’t be yourself, be who you decide to be. In other words, don’t simply act on all the beliefs and labels you have accumulated over your life but base your life on conscious decision. By basing your life on decision you are taking responsibility. Don’t assume that life is just going to work out simply by being yourself. Life doesn’t owe you anything, you must earn it all.

“What about the things I can’t change?” I hear some of you cry. This is an important point because I would be naive if I assumed you could change everything in your life through decision. There are some aspects of yourself which will be impossible for you to change on your own. However, power comes from focusing on the aspects you can change. Focus your life on the aspects you can control and improve and your power grows. There is enough of your personality to evolve for a lifetime to not worry about the parts that are unmovable.

The real allure of the advice, ‘be yourself’, is that secret hope that somehow if you are just yourself everything will all work out. This gives you that warm fuzzy feeling that somehow the universe is there to help you. Unfortunately a quick look outside shows that we live in the real world not a soft, idealized version. The real world doesn’t bend to accommodate who you are, you must evolve yourself to adapt to the real world.

Be Congruent

The real truth behind the saying ‘be yourself’ is simply to be congruent. Congruency happens when you have the courage and strength of character to behave consistently whether it is in private or with others. If you act one way with friends and completely differently with colleagues then you aren’t being congruent. This is the real heart of the ‘be yourself’ advice and perhaps its only redeeming quality.

Congruency occurs when you first make a decision about who you are and then decide to be that person in all settings. People like others who are consistent. Consistent people are trustworthy and reliable. If you see your church leader going to a strip club, what would disturb you about this? Only that he is being incongruent with how he behaves in church.

Perfect congruency is impossible, especially if you are continually growing. There are many times where you may have to take a step outside your comfort zone in one area which will stretch your consistency in other areas. As you grow more and mature it is easier to make leaps of growth without distorting your congruency.

Don’t Be Yourself — Be Congruent With Who You Decide To Be

The answer to personal happiness and growth isn’t to follow the tired advice to be yourself. Aside from being hopelessly vague, easily misconstrued and too often swallowed without thought, this nugget of wisdom can be potentially harmful. Don’t create a distinction between the ‘real you’ and when you behave inappropriately. Own all your behaviors. Don’t use this advice as an excuse for not evolving your personality into one that is more compassionate, balanced, courageous and disciplined. You are responsible for yourself.

The alternative to being yourself is simply deciding who you want to be and then becoming congruent with that person at all levels. If you are unhappy with any part of your life, work to change it. Money, status, personality, physical traits and ego are all secondary to experience itself. Be willing to change the aspects you can whenever they interrupt the quality of that experience.

The real time people spout this advice is when they see people who lack congruence. A little inconsistency may be necessary in the start of a personality shift, but you should always strive to have your public and private behaviors match. When you decide who you want to be and become perfectly congruent with that person then being yourself isn’t advice, it is the way you live your life.


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33 Responses to “Don’t Be Yourself”

  1. This is awesome. I love seeing traditional notions of self-improvement get dissected and I think you’ve done a remarkable job. From my perpective, when a phrase like “be yourself” becomes so cliche, it really can’t make any difference. It becomes part of the background culture from which we assume identity instead of an act of consciously choosing who or how to be and living conguent with that choice. Well done, Scott.

  2. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comment, Erek.

    You are correct that this advice has become so cliched it has little impact anymore, but I wanted to put a stop to the almost universal acceptance of this advice. Certainly some people will disagree with me, but I think the world would be a more conscious place if people stopped being themselves and instead became congruent with who they decide to be.

  3. Excellent article. I´ve been think a bit about this thing about “just be yourself” too. I think one of the reasons people say it is because many want you to stay in your familiar kind of box. If you start to change, and they have know you for a while, they feel anxious because you aren´t like you´ve always been. You might start and reveal new and to them confusing choices and ideas. Also they might feel that you are starting to grow while they (at least for now) stay the same.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Henrik,

    People naturally resist any form of change. This is why growth is so difficult, homeostasis causes us to resist it. But people will also resist any changes you try to make in yourself. Don’t let other people hold you down.

  5. Amy says:

    Great post Scott! Very well done.

    I have felt conflicted about the “be yourself” advice for some time now, bouncing back and force from embracing and rejecting it. Your post was very helpful because it acknowledges the underlying value (congruence) while throwing out the ridiculous notion that growing, changing, and embracing different parts of one’s personality is in some way bad. I think this viewpoint releases the pressure to have to once and for all decide exactly who you’re going to be for the rest of your life. It can, and should be, an evolving self-image.

    Thanks!

    And Henrik, I have also experienced what you mention.

  6. Scott Young says:

    Thanks Amy,

    Jeez and when I think I’m writing a controversial piece everybody agrees with me. ;)

    The inspiration from this article came out of a few conversations with friends who were offering thoughts on dating. One of my friends who happened to be a woman quoted this to often cited advice to another male friend to “Just be yourself.” Although I would never promote active deception or manipulation, it does offer up the question: If you aren’t good at dating perhaps the problem isn’t because you are trying to hard but because other people simply don’t find your current personality attractive. I think the “be yourself” mantra makes a lot of false assumptions about a people, namely that if we all acted “normally” everything will just work out.

    Although congruence is important, it is secondary to growth. Having a few people thinking I’m doing something that “isn’t me” is worth the potential growth.

    Thanks for the comments!

  7. Ben says:

    Hi Scott,

    Another though provoking article.

    “Just be yourself” has been reduced to the level of a “Just do it.” One simply can’t “just be yourself” due to the various experiences that is life.

    I know that being a father to two boys has changed who I am in comparison to who I was before I became a parent and husband. I also know that I am continously developing who I am.

    You are spot in saying that one should own all of one’s behaviours. It’s unfortunate that those in the public eye, who are cast as role models when they shouldn’t be, don’t take ownership of their behaviours.

    Thanks

  8. Scott Young says:

    Ben,

    I guess now the new Nike slogan will be, “Just be yourself”…

  9. Alvin Soon says:

    Hi Scott,

    I love when you said ‘be your best self’, which sounds a lot more useful than just ‘be yourself’.

    I think there’s a time and place for both, sometimes ‘be yourself’ can be used to imply to someone that just being yourself is enough, because you’re already good enough, brave enough, smart enough, etc.

    At other times I agree with one of the co-founders of NLP, Richard Bandler; ‘why be yourself when you can be someone better?’

  10. Scott Young says:

    Alvin,

    Thanks for the comments. I like Bandler’s quote too.

  11. [...] Don’t Be Yourself Filed under: Self-Help | Wednesday, October 11th, 2006 Though not one to really follow self help books I have read a few in my time and I know that a common theme is to “be yourself”. Over at Scott Young’s website he has a very interesting article that dismisses this idea. There is a hidden trap within the statement to be yourself. This trap is that sometimes being yourself is an excuse that cuts you off from growth. Instead of taking responsibility for who you are and striving to evolve that, you can avoid doing the work by saying that those aspects are just part of the real you. This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 11th, 2006 at 10:11 am and is filed under Self-Help. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  12. Emily says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and articles but I feel like I’ve stumbled on a treasure lode. You have a gift for illucidating simple but powerful principles of self-improvement and larger living. I commend you on your thoughtful insight and I completely agree with you about the cliched and unhelpful advice of “being yourself.” I will continue to read your articles and hope you keep up the good work.

    Thanks,
    Emily

  13. sansrid says:

    Good Analysis!
    I really appreciate your insight!

  14. [...] Don’t Be Yourself – Readers of this site know that I dislike the expression “be yourself”. On the surface it sounds like great advice, but I’ve found it to be not only meaningless but potentially dangerous. [...]

  15. [...] your nature. And, if you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few months, you already know what I think of this advice… What are your thoughts on this problem? Have you solved it in your own life? If so, what was your [...]

  16. [...] Don’t Be Yourself – One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is “Whether you try to or not, you can’t be anything but yourself.” I think it is important to be authentic and original, but “being yourself” can be an excuse to surrender to any limitations you’ve had in your past. [...]

  17. [...] Don’t Be Yourself – One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard is “Whether you try to or not, you can’t be anything but yourself.” I think it is important to be authentic and original, but “being yourself” can be an excuse to surrender to any limitations you’ve had in your past. [...]

  18. Francesca says:

    Thank you!!!! You don’t know how long I have been scouring the internet in hopes that someone else more eloquent that I was fed up with psychotherapy “authenticity.” Or just people fed up with the BS of people claiming to “just be themselves.” This is a public service.

    Moreover, what does being yourself even mean? Aren’t we always changing? Shouldn’t we try to change for the better. I’m not a relativist either, so I think there is a better.

  19. Scott Young says:

    Fran,

    I’d agree with you. Really it’s how you interpret the advice of “be yourself”. For me, I think it’s too short, allowing you to interpret it in many different ways–which also means it’s useless to give as advice.

    I think authenticity and independence are important traits, but I think the notion of “being yourself” has a lot more depth than a catchphrase. Thanks for the comments.

    -Scott

  20. [...] “Be Yourself” is a popular piece of advice. Everyone likes to hear it, yet what does it really mean? The Ancient Greeks said to “Know Thyself,” but why is it so important to know who you are? The concept of Self is not that clear, yet we all seem to sense a pattern of qualities, traits and characteristics that are completely one’s own. [...]

  21. Miranda says:

    Hi :)
    I am using idea from this article for my English assignment. I don’t think it is exactly the message you were trying to put forward when youw ere writing htis, but my topic is ‘You should not be able to be yourself’
    Mirandaaa, Brisbane

  22. yezt says:

    I found this article when I got bored and googled the phrase, “don’t be yourself.” As cynical as it may seem, I’m glad there are others who find the notion of “being yourself” vague and mindless.

    If only we could get the message through to all the teenagers with blogs…

  23. Monica says:

    My main reasons for disliking the statement to “be yourself” are: 1) It doesn’t allow for growth and 2) it often includes behaviors/personality traits that at not self-ascribed, but “others-inscribed”–for lack of a better word. Finally think of it it in story format, you’re looking all over for a job and let’s say you’re normally someone who makes crude jokes or racist statements (hey if you’re with like-minded people, great) and you make these statements at the interview consider your likelihood of getting this position. This goes to show why it it not always a good idea to “be yourself”–sometimes “acting” is necessary to get where we need to be and to eventually grow as individuals—well unless we choose not to grow.

  24. Nice article Scott. While I agree with the spirit of a lot of your post, I disagree with the premise. I’m the last person to defend self help, but I do believe that the route to happiness is… in being yourself.

    I believe that being yourself is a process of evolution. The conflicts and trials of life are what cause us to develop a refined sense of what we are. Some of this is a matter of deciding what we are, but much is decided by genetics and the circumstances we are born into.

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  27. Nimue Brown says:

    There’s so much scope for choice not only in who we are, but how we choose to show ourselves to others. Figure out how you want other people to see you, figure out what actions would create that impression, do those things, check for feedback. We become what we do, and we choose what we do, so we can also choose who we become. The orignal ‘myself’ was anxious, insecure, needy, fearful, as a child I was a social disaster. I learned to be more like the person I wanted to be. Still a work in progress…

  28. Indeed thought provoking.
    I agree with you on most points.
    I think that the “Be yourself” phrase has much more into it than just the superficial meaning of the words.
    It challenges you to get to know who you really are in order to be that person.
    Anybody who is accepting that phrase without bothering to dig for the meaning of it, probably got it all wrong. So have the people who use it as an excuse to stay where they are in life or to justify their inability to be nice to other people.

  29. Tyler says:

    Okay honest question
    Any chance that perhaps “being yourself” is more like a starting place than a finishing place…?

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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