‘Be yourself’ is a fashionable statement. It’s paraphrased in many ways to suit varying needs. It’s used in advertising slogans and taglines. It’s given as advice by counsellors and well-meaning others. It’s also considered a great competitive strategy in business—only here it’s called ‘differentiation’. In the world where admiration frequently borders on obsession and idolising becomes synonymous with imitation, being yourself seems like sound advice.
But think again and you’ll find that these messages are concerned only with your outward image and personality. This is primarily because the society, subtly and overtly, encourages us to be like others. Irrespective of the mass-media messages, the truth remains that our society always encourages us to be like others. It is considered a virtue to follow the footsteps of successful film stars, businesspersons, sportspersons and the like.
This is what Stephen Covey calls the Personality Ethic. Personality Ethic is superficial and leads one to think that being yourself means being different from others and expressing that difference. In truth, your real self is not about your personality at all—it’s something fundamental about you. Because, the personality is the mask you wear; even if the mask is of your own choice, it is still a mask.
Being yourself—what it is, and what it is not
At the core, ‘being yourself’ is about living an aware life. It’s about getting to know yourself, about understanding, accepting and respecting your likes and dislikes, your preferences and aversions, and ultimately, your true calling.
Being yourself is not about expressing your individuality to the world or being different from others. In fact, it has very little to do with others. It is about you and you alone. It is about knowing both the desirable and the undesirable in you. It is about knowing fully well, what serves you and what doesn’t—and then choosing consciously that which does.
So, to be yourself, you have to first know yourself, find yourself. This knowing is different from your self-perception, which is often coloured by the societal influence. To know yourself truly, you need to strip yourself of all doubts, judgements, opinions, and biases about yourself and the world. In other words, you need to get rid of ‘beliefs’ in order to know the truth.
In the context of everyday life, being yourself boils down to making conscious choices. The key word here is ‘conscious’. Although the word choice implies ‘consciousness’, more often than not, your choices are not conscious. They are a result of social pressures, life-long conditioning, religious dogmas or even habits.
A choice is conscious only when it is free from any influence whatsoever and relies only upon one’s own feelings.
Conscious choosing is not easy. To be able to choose consciously, you need to first become aware of your deepest core. You need to know who you really are—not with respect to others, not in other people’s opinions, but in your essence. Conscious choosing requires tremendous courage to face yourself and heed your instincts, which may be contrary to other peoples’ expectation of you.
Let me explain. Suppose you are born in a family of doctors. Your mother, father, siblings, uncles and even your grandparents are [or were] doctors. Your parents expect that you too will grow up to be a doctor because that’s the way it is in your family. Nevertheless, you find that you are drawn towards a creative art, say music. You love playing the guitar and want to become a professional guitarist. You don’t even consider it seriously and nip the desire in the bud because your family and the society have reinforced the belief that music is OK as a hobby and you will not do well or be happy if you make it your profession.
In this context, being yourself and choosing consciously means that you understand and acknowledge the views of your parents and others, but resolve to find out for yourself if your truth is the same as theirs. If you find that it is not, you choose to disagree with them, and then find and follow your truth.
Just because your family members, leaders and mass media appear to endorse a viewpoint does not mean you must too. “They must be true. How can all of them be wrong?” you may think. But does it resonate within you? Are you convinced that it’s ‘your’ truth? If you are not asking such questions then you are only embracing ‘beliefs’ you have inherited from the outside world. Your beliefs may not be your truths. Whether they are or not, only you can know. Once you know, it’s no more a belief, it’s a knowing. You have experienced it yourself.
Consciously choosing health and happiness
When you are being yourself and choosing consciously, you are living a life of total awareness. This awareness also helps in realising an elementary truth: individuals by their very nature are unique and therefore one-size-fits-all never works.
Buying shoes may sound trivial but is one of the best analogies for conscious choosing. When we buy shoes, we usually try out many pairs before deciding on the one that we like. We even visit many showrooms before we find our pair. This trial-and-error approach is a good way to start conscious choosing.
Different things work for different people, because we are all distinct. Take dieting for instance. A diet that works for you may not work for your friend. Whether it works for you is something you will have to figure out yourself—no one else can do it for you. Even when your physician or your nutritionist suggests a diet to you, they can only hope that it works for you. This is because your body’s constitution is unique. For instance, milk is universally accepted as healthy but if you are allergic to lactose, it becomes bad for your health; it can even harm you.
What you do for a living is perhaps the best example of how we make unconscious choices and live a life that society determines. Few of us take the beaten path when it comes to our careers. We choose a vocation for external reasons—money, fame and power. Rarely does a career choice emerge due to pure, unadulterated love of doing. Ironically, when such a rare choice is made, the chooser often achieves extraordinary success. [Read Labour of Love, Complete Wellbeing, January 2007]
Freedom and responsibility
Being yourself means you assume total responsibility for your life. Depending on your attitude and conditioning, this may appear scary or exciting—or both! Scary, because you can’t blame anyone else for anything that happens to you. Exciting, because it’s freedom at its fundamental best. Once you understand that everything that happens to you happens because of your choices, you begin to choose only that which serves you. You become fluid enough to accept even the changes that occur within you. Being yourself then means living a spontaneous life, choosing moment-to-moment and revelling in that freedom.
Relationships are another area where conscious choosing can help create healthy and fulfilling bonds. Let’s say you are going for a date with someone you’ve not met before or are meeting a prospective marriage partner. If, in your attempt to make a good first impression, you pretend to be something you’re not or fake your likes and dislikes, you’re orchestrating a disaster in the making. A relationship in which you have to be something that you are not can never be fulfilling. Sooner or later, you will either feel suffocated pretending or your true self will strive to surface, resulting in loss of trust and conflict.
Even in an established relationship, when we pretend to be what we are not to temporarily avoid conflict or disagreement, it’s a guarantee of disappointment in the future. A relationship in which even one person is inauthentic is doomed. Besides, prolonged pretension adversely affects your mental and physical health.
Even when your pursuit is spiritual, conscious choosing makes all the difference. For instance, there are several meditation techniques and equal number of reasons to meditate. Your reason to meditate and the technique that suits you is something that only you can know. Others can advise, but only you can know whether it works.
Misuse of the ‘be yourself’ paradigm
When American author and editor Tom Masson said, “‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people”, he was probably referring to those who justify their shortcomings such as arrogance, short-temper, false-pride, greed and many other self-defeating characteristics under the pretext of being themselves. Being yourself is not a license to be indifferent to your weaknesses or worse still, to letting your nastiest sides loose. On the contrary, when you are your authentic self, you do not need to lose your temper or be arrogant as these shortcomings are cover-ups for our deep-rooted insecurities that arise from living inauthentic lives.
Why we are tempted to give up our individuality
The topmost reason is fear. When we live our lives with fear as the dominant driver, we then make all choices in our life only to avoid whatever it is that we fear. Fear of hurting others, fear of failure, fear of the unfamiliar, fear of freedom [or the responsibility that comes with it] and ultimately, the fear of death.
Fear is always about the future—about something that may or may not happen. When we are fearful, we don’t live in the present and as a result, it is impossible to be yourself and choose consciously.
Being yourself is certainly not for the timid, who place the approval of others above their own instincts. In a society, where being yourself is looked with suspicion and contempt, guilt arises. This guilt leads to suppression of desires. Guilt lowers your self-perception and keeps you from being yourself. You are forever trying to win the approval and respect of others, never thinking about what you really need, want and desire.
When all your life you are trying to be like designated others, you suffer from low self-esteem and often believe that there’s nothing special about you. Moreover, when some individuals dare to be themselves, they face a lot of resistance. Being yourself then appears to be a risky proposition; it’s better to tread the path that has worked for everyone else.
Another reason most people live inauthentic lives is due to the tremendous social pressures they face. The media is constantly bombarding you with messages of how you are not good enough as you are and why you need their product or service for an improved you. Take the example of fairness creams, which blatantly advertise that you won’t be socially accepted until you have a fair skin. Now if you’re a dark-skinned man or woman who’s not comfortable in your skin [figuratively and literally], you will buy this argument, feel miserable about yourself and would want to be fairer. If you dissect the phenomenon just a little bit, you will find that the advertiser has succeeded in exploiting your need for approval.
Ideas to help you be you
Here are some ideas that will help you to be yourself
- Start with accepting yourself as you are, complete with your strengths and weakness. Stand in front of the mirror and say to the person you see, “I love you”. Say it genuinely, because unless you love yourself, you will never feel like being yourself.
- Be honest with yourself. Begin to acknowledge that your uniqueness is not something to hide or be afraid of. You are special and therefore your likes and dislikes are special too.
- Relax and stop worrying about the future; the future will unfold in its time.
- Trust your instincts and follow them. You’ll find that it’s most fulfilling when you live by your inner signals.
- Be or do anything you love. Spend time each week doing what you love doing. Do not do it for the result. Do it because it gives you satisfaction. Paint, sing, take bubble baths, cook, go trekking—simply indulge for its own sake.
- Try to remain conscious when doing something out of habit. If you smoke, the next time you reach out for a cigarette, ask yourself if it’s a conscious choice—are you smoking because you really want to or because it’s become an unconscious habit?
- Develop a sense of self-worth. Understand that you do not need to be like someone else to be worthy. Your thoughts, your body, your values are yours. They may or may not match others’.
Admire, don’t imitate
Admiring someone is natural. To admire is to have a high opinion of someone; there’s nothing wrong with that. When we admire without imitating, we simply learn from others, and pick up their positive traits, without consciously trying to be like them.
Trouble begins only when our admiration turns us into blind imitators, or it blurs our vision and makes us forget our own uniqueness. Then we become, in the words of Judy Garland, “second-rate versions of somebody else,” instead of first-rate versions of ourselves.
It is imperative for us to acknowledge that talents differ from one individual to another; so do abilities. We are all specially gifted. In doing so, we may look up to many great individuals who have achieved success in their spheres. But we do not have to pattern our lives on them to feel happy and fulfilled.
Our true fulfilment lies in being able to discover and, then, live the life we want to live. To do that, it is imperative to identify “who we really are.” No less a genius than Johann von Goethe said, “If God had wanted me otherwise, He would have created me otherwise.”
Excerpted from “Admire, Don’t Imitate” by Manoj Khatri, published in January 2007 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
This was first published in the April 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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