Throughout their lives people are constantly being told to “just be yourself.” Anyone who has ever set off for a job interview or a romantic date has probably left with these words ringing in their ears! And yet being yourself, though it seems the most natural thing in the world, can be surprisingly difficult. Of course, for some it comes naturally. Most, however, find it takes effort – and courage.
Before looking at this topic in more detail, it should be pointed out that being yourself is not the same as being a rebel. Adolescents can be excused this mistake: after all, rebellion is part of their struggle for a new, separate identity. But when adults strike the rebellious pose, it is often just that – a pose. And poseurs are not being themselves.
An amusing example of this can be found in the 1961 movie The Rebel, in which a deluded artist, trapped in a miserable office job, leaves for Paris. Soon he has a group of followers, just as pretentious and deluded as him. One evening, he is asked why he left London and replies that he was tired of working in an office full of boring conformists. One of the pseudo-intellectuals shakes his head and says “how dreadful – imagine being with people who are all the same.” Behind him sit a dozen friends, all dressed in the same black shirts and the same black berets.
Thinking for Yourself
First, you must learn to think for yourself. Do not confuse this with originality however. Someone who always disagrees with the majority is, once again, merely striking a pose. You may have said something original, but if you do not really believe it you are being intellectually dishonest and merely seeking to impress others. All that matters is that you think something through carefully, allow your train of thought to lead you where it will, and then stick to your conclusions.
Someone who can truly think for themselves holds opinions that they sincerely believe. They work out what they think, not what they hope will impress, please, or antagonize other people. Remember, agreeing with the ‘boring’, ‘uncool’ majority can sometimes take just as much courage as going against them.
You must also avoid self-deception. Many people claim to believe something when in fact they are simply afraid of upsetting their friends. Admitting this fear would be shameful, however, so they convince themselves that they do believe what they are saying. Do not allow your views to be shaped by fear or guilt. And learn to identify biases, especially on your own side. For example, someone with liberal views will be very good at spotting bias and nonsense in a conservative newspaper but less likely to spot it in a liberal one.
The novelist George Orwell offers an admirable personal example: though a socialist, he quickly saw Stalin’s regime for what it was and mercilessly attacked it in his writings. Naturally, some of his left-wing friends were angry, but Orwell was his own man, guided by his own sense of justice and honor, not by a wish to impress or please others.
Relationships With Other People
Those with the strength to be themselves do not expect or demand too much of others. For a start, they do not expect other people to care. This does not mean they are unmoved by sympathy and love, neither does it mean they never need affection or support. But some people seem to feel that the world owes them something and that they have a right to such care and attention.
It may be assumed that individualists make bad romantic partners. In fact, that does not seem to be the case. According to the psychotherapist Robin Skynner, the strongest and most stable family units are those formed of self-sufficient individuals who do their own thing and know they could survive on their own. The love between them is thus more authentic than the love that exists between people who are frightened, needy and dependent.
Far too many people go through life waiting for someone else to make them happy. But the cliché is quite true: happiness comes from within. Human beings need one another of course, and the giving and receiving of love is essential to good physical and mental health. But such love must be sought from a position of strength rather than weakness.
Principles and Individualism
An essential part of being yourself is having your own principles, but these need to come from within you rather than being imposed by a parent or religious leader. Of course, you may agree with the principles by which you were raised, but you must never blindly follow them without having first re-considered them as an adult. Have you own code of honor – and compromise it for no one. Being your own person means knowing what you believe and standing by those beliefs even if everyone else in the room is urging you to do the opposite.
Being yourself means being authentic. This is actually much harder than it seems. Many writers, from Carl Jung and R.D. Laing to Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, have noted the way people adopt certain roles and then act them out. The Parisian waiter, the tough drill sergeant, the Oxford student, each will often play up to the stereotypes and pretend this is how they really think and feel. Jung referred to this as the persona (or mask) and argued that shedding it was the first step on the road to individuation.
Others, like the British psychiatrist R.D. Laing, have argued that authenticity is the key to good mental health. In his 1960 classic, The Divided Self, Laing argued that some schizophrenic breakdowns were the result of a lifetime spent hiding the true self beneath a series of false selves. Eventually, Laing argued, the true self withers away and dies and the individual is left with nothing but a mask.
Laing also conducted research into the families of schizophrenics and found that many came from the lower middle-class. Such people spend their lives trying to distinguish themselves from the working-class and hoping to be accepted into the middle-class. Consequently, the children of such people are raised to hide their spontaneous, instinctive side and to pretend to be something they are not.
Like most things, being yourself takes practise. It also takes courage. Many people fear that they will only be accepted if they try to be what others approve of. But human beings are not so easily fooled and can quickly sense when someone is acting. The truth is, no matter what you are really like, people will respect you for having the courage and strength to be your own person.