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.
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.