Just Be Yourself. (But What Does That Mean?)
No doubt you've heard the phrase,
"Just be yourself".
Whether walking into an interview, going on a date, or finding a deeper sense of meaning to life, "being yourself" seems to be the best advice we often offer.
But what does being yourself mean?
(*please note - this post got a lot longer than I had originally intended. No matter how much I try to edit it, it feels like all of the words below are an important part of this exploration. So if this question grabs your attention, pour a cup of coffee and practice staying focused with me.)
It feels good to think about being authentic.
There's something both empowering and deeply comforting when you ponder living your days in a manner that feels as if you aren't faking it, in a way that feels deeply soul-driven, not outwardly directed.
If for only that feel-good reason, it's worth exploring this a bit. (We all need a bit of good feelings these days.)
There are countless books and programs that explore the concept of authenticity.
After years of studying these, I've noticed a consistency that troubles me.
Most explorations on being one's self assume that there is A self to be found, discovered, and/or lived.
This assumption is that deep within, you have a true, unique, static nature - a set of beliefs, dislikes, and desires - a "you-ness". And if you can somehow figure these out amidst the noise of everyone else's beliefs, and if you can somehow adhere to your you-ness day in and day out, then you will be living this authentic and happy life.
But (stick with me here) what if there is no set self? What if your "you" is not rooted, but flowing?
As many wise persons have said, the only constant is change.
If life is changing and nature is changing and others around you are changing, it only makes sense that you are changing as well.
It seems rather odd that this change would have some finite point towards which you should be working - a SELF that is the triumphant end goal.
Given this, perhaps we might then embrace the idea that others (and admittedly, I) have stated: that the process of finding one's self is an ongoing practice, a journey.
This idea is more helpful than the never-ending struggle of trying to discover a fixed self.
However, there is still an assumption buried deep within this "journey" that there is a self to be discovered outside of this self that you are, right here and now. There are assumptions that that self is somehow better and more authentic than this self.
What if we try on this perspective:
Being yourself IS your ongoing exploration, curiosity, and play with this moment.
Your you-ness is not something you will eventually discover. It is the essence of all of the things that create your experience of this moment.
In this case, "just be yourself" means to experience this moment as openly, fully, and playfully as you can.
This ever changing "you" has been through some stuff. You've collected thoughts and beliefs and habits over your years and passed down from your ancestors.
Because of that, you experience this exact same moment in a drastically different way than I do, or than anyone else would.
Even if we were in the same place, sharing the same cup of coffee, engaging in the same conversation, your experience of those moments would be based on so many things that are unique to you:
how you notice and/or feel about the scent and noise of the environment, the thoughts you are having outside of and about our conversation, the sensations or pains you are experiencing within your own body.
The less aware you are of those experiences, the less you....well, ...experience them.
The more you try to push away or cling to certain aspects of those experiences (like trying to ignore a swelling sadness over something that is happening in your life while we smile and converse, or trying to make the coffee last forever), the less you experience those passing minutes in their fullness.
Being unconsciously or willingly ignorant of the fullness of any experience is being unconsciously or willingly incomplete.
It is being not fully yourself.
You are this always-changing essence that, in order to be authentically you, needs to fully experience these ever-changing moments.
Sounds .... nearly impossible, right?
I feel you.
We exist in fast-paced societies that encourage solidity, definition, and clearly defined ways of being. Each person has their role (teacher, bus driver, doctor, mother) and their labels (she / he, white / colored, young / old, heterosexual / homosexual, abled / disabled, etc).
You are expected, usually by the time you leave college, to have figured out your roles and labels and to adhere to those.
Granted, recent decades and the introduction of the internet - where we can discover and create endless combinations of these roles and labels - have created some holes in our definitions.
Along come those people like Lizzo, who challenge our role and label boundaries. (Wait - you can be a larger woman, colored, successful, and possess self-love?)
Along come movements, like #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter that give us pause and make us question the previously unquestioned role descriptions of masculinity and race.
Sadly, though, this uncertainty usually makes us more fearful. Because of that fear, many double-down on their assertion of self - what they've known, what's kept them safe up until this point. Individuals claim a right way to believe, a right way to live, and discourage the very exploration that these label-breaking people and movements could lead to.
It creates a lot of dis-ease, discomfort, and furthers divisiveness.
What does this have to do with you being yourself?
With any of these conversations, I'm always pointing the finger back at you. (And myself.)
I want you to pause, consider all of this, and feel around what it might mean in your own daily life.
I want to acknowledge how difficult some things might be (in this instance, given the deeply-rooted societal practices and fear-driven instinctual behaviors that we all have). And, I want to encourage practice despite and alongside those difficulties.
Remember that the self is change.
The roles and labels that we create are comfortable containers in which you rest - places where you can do what you know needs to be done, interact with others in mindless ways, and not expend any energy wondering why.
You know what you are to do at work each day - whether you are a mom or a scientist or a massage therapist or a teacher. You know that when you run into a friend, "how are you?" is the standard greeting. In many ways, we need these agreed upon ways of being, these tried-and-true ways of low-energy existence.
In many ways, though, we are killing ourselves by sleepwalking like this.
We all want to know how, and the freedom to be our authentic selves. Those selves are constantly changing. We live in a world where acknowledgement of that change is minimized and stuffed into non-changing roles and labels.
And then, from within one pre-made box to another, we shout to one another, "Just Be Yourself"....and wonder why we have such hard times doing so.
So what now?
There are the collective things to which you can contribute (or at least acknowledge and/or encourage).
We need environments that support self-exploration.
We need educational systems and work environments where "I don't know" is an acceptable response.
We need work, family, and social schedules that are flexible, slower-paced, and not only allowing but encouraging of time for curiosity, quiet, and play.
And then there are the things that "you" can do, right now, right within yourself and your own mundane day.
You need more curiosity and less certainty.
You need more questions and less judgment.
You need more alone time and less phone time.
You need more self-awareness. (We all do.) Awareness that you are a self that is always changing. Awareness of your thoughts, emotions, sensual self, body, actions, and how all of these things have consequences that ripple back into your experience of this moment....and thus, your "you-ness".
I'd like to share a story - one that prompted this entire post and one that I feel highlights the experience (and importance) of being yourself.
This past weekend was our local Pride festival. Despite a busy day, my daughter and I were able to find an hour in the late afternoon to attend. It was something she had wanted to do, and an experience I wasn't about to deny her.
What happened at that festival will always exist beyond words.
As we wandered from booth to booth, amidst a crowd of people dressed in everything from everyday street wear to the most bold of costumes, I not only delighted in my own feelings but watched closely those of my daughter's.
Every once in awhile, she would say that she was having a good time, or ask if we could stop at a booth. But she didn't say a lot. She didn't have to.
She was experiencing those moments with a fullness that I've rarely witnessed from a teenager (or any adult).
As others around her radiated authenticity and acceptance, she, too eased into her flow of being.
I snapped a quick photo with my cell phone during one of these moments. It is the photo at the top of this post.
You can see the flags and the rainbows and her gentle smile in the photo. What you can't see are the tears in her eyes - the ones that never made it to her cheeks, but that consistently dampened her gaze. What you can't see are the feelings that created those tears - feelings of freedom, acceptance, and support in playfully exploring those moments.
What you can't see is the invisible experience of one woman, one child, finally understanding ... if only for a few precious moments ... the beauty of being herself.
I'll end this unusually long post with a quick reminder, then let my daughter's own words take you into your day.
You are change. You are your experience of this moment and the one that will happen when you stop reading. You are so much more than you will ever know, and so am I, and we need one another.
I leave you with this - my daughter's words about her experience at Pride, shared on Instagram, and shared here with her permission: