Thoughts On "Be Yourself" As Social Advice
One of the most commonly given pieces of social advice is "be yourself". It's also a suggestion some shy or lonely people dislike for being vague and unhelpful, not to mention lazy and overused. This article will try to explain what someone might actually be advising if they tell you to "just be yourself" in a social situation. I'll then cover some common questions or concerns people have about the saying.
Note, I'm not writing from the perspective that the reason "be yourself" is recommended so often is because it's profound wisdom, if you can just untangle what it means. Some of its interpretations are useful enough, but no better than plenty of other tips. I think it's simply a phrase that, for whatever reason, picked up enough steam over the years to become a cliche.
Useful meanings of "be yourself"
"Be yourself" = "Don't suddenly try to be someone you're not"
This meaning often applies when someone gives you the advice before a specific get together. You might be meeting several new people. Or you could be hanging out with one important person under higher-stakes circumstances, like a first date. Either way, when people care about making a good impression they sometimes try to act like a different person. Sometimes it's a conscious choice. Sometimes they just get a bit anxious and do it without thinking. For example, if they're usually low key and cerebral, they might try to be loud and funny. If they're normally polite and good natured, they may try to be raunchy and edgy. This usually goes wrong because they don't truly know how to be that way, and end up acting like a clumsy caricature of it instead. Telling someone to "just be yourself" is trying to get them to avoid that mistake.
When you act like your usual self, it won't guarantee everyone will approve of you. No one can be liked 100% of the time. However, you'll probably do better than if you were a cartoony version of someone else. Also, if you're going to spend time with someone you know, why would you want to put on a new personality? They're already familiar with your regular self, and have agreed to hang out with you because they like it.
This isn't to say you can't have longer term goals for yourself. Maybe you want to learn to be more outgoing, and less-reserved, at parties. That's fine, but it's not something you can accomplish all at once on a spur of the moment decision. You need to slowly work up to it across several outings.
"Be yourself" = "Be the relaxed, comfortable-in-your-own-skin version of yourself"
This is similar to the point above. Sometimes when people are concerned about leaving a positive impression they won't try to be someone else entirely, but they'll become a heightened, spazzy version of their typical self. For example, if they normally make a witty comment every now and then, now they'll be throwing out half-cooked jokes left and right. That or they'll try to portray themselves as more interesting and high-status than they actually are. Like someone who's only traveled a bit will tell some obvious lies to try to seem globetrotting and adventurous, because they think that's what everyone wants to hear. There's an element of trying to force an outcome, rather than going with the flow and being able to accept it may not work out.
This variation on "be yourself" is saying to act like you would if you were relaxed and not worried about winning anyone over. Behave as if you're casually hanging out with some long-time friends who you know accept you - the kinds of people that would never make you think, "I'll really have to sell myself to them to get their approval." That version of you is almost always going to come across better than someone who's trying too hard. It's easier said than done to be calm on command, but just being aware of this advice can help you catch yourself before you do anything too outrageous.
Again, it's okay if you have a longer-term goal of dialing up one of your traits, but it's something you should gradually cultivate. That's different than spontaneously unleashing an over the top version of yourself because you're nervous.
"Be yourself" = "Actually show who you are"
A third unhelpful strategy people use when they're worried about being evaluated is they'll hide most of who they are. They won't talk much about their interests, or share any opinions or stories. They'll generally try to be safe, bland, and inoffensive. That can backfire and cause people to think they're boring and inhibited, or overlook them altogether. Once more, when you show people what you're actually like they won't all enjoy your company, but you'll likely get a better reception than if you closed yourself off. Plus, by showing your real self, the people you are compatible with will be able to spot you.
"Be yourself" = "Drop your schtick and interact with everyone as a regular person"
For example, you start a new part-time job and one of your co-workers is always making corny dad jokes. He's not doing it because he's temporarily nervous. He's just decided that's how he's going to act. It's amusing enough, but every time you talk to him all he does is make groan worthy puns and one-liners. Before long you might daydream of taking him aside and saying, "Hey man, just be yourself. The odd joke is okay, but drop the gimmick and have a normal conversation with me too." This variation of "be yourself" is partially saying, "Be your whole self. Don't become a one-dimensional character."
"Be yourself" = "Generally be accepting of whoever you are"
This variation shares ideas from the points above, but is more of an overall approach to life. You are who you are. Some of your personality traits or interests may be "bad" according to mainstream society's standards. There's no point in hating yourself or wishing you could become a completely different type of person. You'll be happier if you accept who you are, and live whatever kind of life fulfills you. When you're around other people, show the real you. You'll push away those who aren't a good fit for you, and attract the ones who are.
You can still have things about yourself you want to change, but you shouldn't think your current self is totally flawed. You should also distinguish between true problems and harmless differences. It's one thing to want to deal with the anxiety that's keeping you from talking to people at parties. It's another if your idea of an interesting conversation is to speculate about artificial intelligence, but you feel that's lame and wish you could turn into someone who only wants to talk about what bars they went to last weekend.
Some questions and concerns about "Be yourself"
There are several ways to answer some of these questions, depending on how you interpret "be yourself". The vagueness of the saying really starts to show itself here.
"What if I don't know what 'myself' is?"
When you tell some people to "be yourself" they soon realize they only have a fuzzy sense of who they are. If that describes you it'll be helpful to take some time to get a better sense of yourself. Think about questions like:
- What are your core values?
- What are your opinions on various topics?
- What are your preferences in various situations?
- How do you feel about various hobbies and activities? Which ones do you truly enjoy?
- Are any of those answers coming more from outside societal values than your true, inner self?
I realize it's kind of silly to casually tell you to figure out who you are. For many people it's a lifelong quest. You don't have to nail everything down right away, and it's fine if you change your mind about some of your answers later. Though, even with things partially figured out you'll have an easier time being your authentic self.
"What if 'myself' is a jerk?"
Some people would say "be yourself" doesn't mean "unapologetically flaunt all your flaws". It means "Be yourself, but with the usual standards of politeness, and consideration and respect for others applied to your behavior." Like if "yourself" is someone who's intellectual and interested in world events, that's great. But put a lid on the part that wants to condescendingly lecture anyone who doesn't agree with you.
A second response is: If you truly are a jerk then don't be "yourself" as you are now. That's going to detract from your life too much. Figure out what a non-jerk "yourself" would look like, then strive to become them.
Another angle is to say your "true self" doesn't include your flaws. It's a version of you that's free of your hurtful tendencies. So in that sense you can't "be yourself" and also act douchey. Again, figure out what your "best self" looks like, then try to be them.
Finally, you could always read "be yourself" as "If you're a jerk, then go with it. Who cares about anyone else?" Obviously that's not going to get you very far.
"What if 'myself' is awkward or boring, and doesn't let me meet my social goals? 'Just be yourself' can assume your natural self is likable and interesting, but what if it's not?"
One way to approach this question is to say, "There's nothing wrong with wanting to work on weaknesses you've identified. It's fine to have goals for 'yourself' you're moving toward." Like with the last point, you could also play around with your definition of "yourself" to have it not include your less-appealing tendencies, then aim to act like that.
At the same time, is your current self as bad as you think? Is there a chance you're insecure and being too hard on yourself? Is it possible that your current self could make friends if you found a crowd and scene that was the right match for you?
"What's considered a part of 'yourself' anyway?"
This is the larger philosophical question "be yourself" raises. It leads to several sub-questions. Here are a few:
- Our personalities and preferences vary from day to day, and we're not always sure why. If someone's generally reserved, it doesn't mean they're like that every waking hour. If they're in a certain mood, or with particular people, they may be quite chatty and outgoing. What's their "true self" in regards to their reservedness? The way they act the majority of the time? Is however they're feeling in that moment their "true self"?
- If you're shy, is that a core part of "yourself" or a pile of fears and insecurities that are holding your true "self" back? If you're feeling shy that day should you accept it and be the shyer version of "yourself"? Or should you ask what your non-shy "self" would do, and fight to make that person come through? Does the answer change if you get the occasional bout of mild shyness vs. if you've always been very inhibited around people?
- If you're going through a rough patch in your life, and are more anxious or sad than normal, where's the line between your core self and a temporary rise in distressing emotions? If you say something gloomy and negative, are you being true to the "yourself" of that moment, or letting your transient depression override the real you? What if your depressed mood lasts a long time? Is there a point where it graduates from a short-term state to "yourself"?
- Putting aside the question of whether you should suppress them around others or not, are your personality flaws part of your "true self"? Or is your "true self" only made up of your good traits, and any flaws are considered baggage that's getting in its way?
- Everyone adjusts how they act somewhat based on their circumstances (for example, a meeting with the boss vs. hanging out at a bar with friends). Where does the true "self" begin in all that? Are you not being "yourself" unless you do whatever you want regardless of the context? Or is it more realistic and sensible to try to be "yourself" as much as you can within the parameters of each situation?
I'm not going to try to answer all of these questions. I think everyone can decide for themselves where their "true self" lies, or how they want to define "yourself" so it guides their actions in a helpful way.