This is one of those things that people tell you all the time. To get ahead. To get friends. To get girls. This maxim strikes me as odd.

A lot of people don't like you for who you are. They like you because you have Stuff, or because you act around them in such a way that they want to be around you, or because somehow in the future, they might be somehow better off by having been friends with you. Many people don't act "themselves" and it helps them to not do so. They are better off by acting the way that they do rather than "being themselves." Others, either consciously or unconsciously, act differently around different people.

What if someone's "self" was a homicidal maniac or a rapist? Is this the message that should be sent to people and ingrained in their minds at childhood? Then, when they are rehabilitated, they should start being themselves again?

All the time, society nudges people this way and that through its reinforcements. Actions and statements have legal and social implication that impel people one way or the other. There are punishments for acting one way and rewards for acting another. Indeed, should a person be themself if it means a life of suffering? And, if there truly is a "self" that one can be, that is left unaffected by the actions of the outside (otherwise "being yourself" would entail your dependence on others' actions, going against the spirit of the statement), then is not any punishment or reward for the actions of someone being themself just a matter of discrimination?

See this nice Onion article on the subject:

Be friendly.
Be mean.

Be flighty.
Be serious.

Be skinny.
Be chubby.

Be gay. Be straight. Be bi. Be transgendered.

Be a conformist. Be different, just like everyone else. Be different, like nobody else.

Be a democrat. Be a libertarian. Be a republican. Be a gay communist anarchist.

Have long hair. Have short hair. Have no hair. Have metal spikes implanted. Have rose bushes implanted and share them with others.

Be Christian. Be atheist. Be Wiccan. Be Rastafarian on Every other Tuesday.

But be yourself. Be yourself because I tell you to. Be yourself because you want to. Be yourself because you hate that little green spot on the carpet. But be yourself.

Be True
You are always someone
but you are prettiest as yourself.
I know you like to perform;
Don't though.

Poetry in Motion at
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Be Yourself. It is a concept that describes a very important aspect of mental health, but one that I think is ineffectively communicated through such a short phrase. We often tell this to children as a handy social guideline without realizing that adults are the only people who really have any strong concept of what defines "yourself."

I think a more appropriate guideline would be, "Don't do or say things that you think are wrong." That is a statement I think most kids would easily understand. "Be yourself" could mean all kinds of other things like:

  • Don't censor yourself just to appease others
  • Behave however you want to regardless of what others think
  • Don't ever emulate anyone else's behaviour
  • Only do things you are comfortable with

And the list could go on, but the point is that while some of these rules may be appealing, there are always times to break them. Social norms are what make society possible, and we all benefit from society whether we care to admit it or not (think cave man life or Mad Max). While I don't believe anyone should go around blindly following others, on the same token, learning from others is a practical and valid way of constructing an identity. If the goal is a sense of identity and self esteem, then reaching that goal has to do with self-evaluation and making reasoned choices more so than being unique at all costs. The fact that you got an idea from someone else shouldn't weigh in on your acceptance of it.

To get at the core of what defines a person, what really stands out is the way their mind works. How a person reacts to a situation is a more intrinsic quality then their values and memories which are dependent on experience. In this regard, not being yourself would be synonymous with over-analyzation of one's own actions to the point of mental anguish (otherwise known as trying too hard), and that is a definition I can stand behind.

The following discourse relies heavily on the works of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, two psychologists that in turn based their work on Freud's. It is the opinion of this author, that while Freud was instrumental in opening up the field of psychology, his theories on the identity of self are really only applicable as steps along the path to the more accurate theories of his successors. His theories rest largely on the idea of the self as completely beholden to and resulting from the traumas of childhood. Only by rooting out these problems and trouncing natural self-defenses can the original self be realized. Both Jung and Adler broke with the Freudian schools of thought because of this, not to mention Freuds obsession with the primacy of sex, and gave us much better models of self identity and realization.

For Jung, the self would be the wisdom of the organism. The totality of the purposefulness of that which we are, which transcends consciousness. Adler agrees, and warns against Freud's ideas that the self is a complete result of childhood trauma for it alleviates the responsibility of being and acting, opening up a 'the devil made me do it' scenario. If factors in the past have had an influence, you don't focus on them as separate negating forces, but include them into the context of the whole organism and its goals for the present and future. It is a great responsibility, but when they are accepted often one will have a sense of rebirth and freedom.

The old bit of trite advice, 'you need to find yourself' may be helpful advice to a child, but it is misleading at best, and often leads to a self-destructive obsession that perpetuates self-doubt. It's as though you were attempting to find your glasses but you had to look through them in order to see at all. It's, as world-renowned theorist of ego development Jane Loevinger says, "just an attempt to see the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave." You can use other means to know your glasses. You can feel them resting on your face; you know that your improved sight is a direct result of the glasses.

Jung might liken the idea of pure ego to complete and total action. When a batter is at the plate, the moment of pure action, swinging at the ball, is pure ego. If one were to think about all the little details that make up that action, all those anxieties would add up to inhibit the action required. Jung proposed the idea of both strengthening and denying the sense of self, the ego. During the first half of life, the drive is to become independent and to make the ego self sufficient enough to deal with all that life has to throw at it. This is where children are attempting to establish their identity and make themselves viable persons in society outside of parental care. The last half of life should see the ego transcending this selfish focus to gain empathy and place itself as a piece in the larger spectrum of a unified identity. This is truly the secret to happiness. Jung sees the self as only the latest step in a cosmic evolution of the unified consciousness of the universe. For him, the aim of life is to know oneself, and to know oneself is to plumb the depths of the inchoate seas of not only the personal unconscious but the collective unconscious as well.

Adler sees things quite like Jung but also warns against the idea of treating the self as a separate entity from the person at large. It cannot be extracted and made to dance to separate rules, and he exhorts the 'indivisibility of personality.' Like Jung, Adler sees knowledge and fulfillment of self possible only when submerged in the greater stream of consciousness of life. Energies should not be expended on 'finding' the self, but nurturing the self's creative energies in an effort to invent, create, or otherwise add to the unified stream of consciousness. "There have always been men who understood this fact; who knew that the meaning of life is to be interested in the whole of mankind and who tried to develop social interest and love. In all religions we find this concern for the salvation of man." In opposition to Freud's theories that the self is largely a product of the negative influences of early childhood, Adler supports the more optimistic view that people are self-determined. He writes, "We are self-determined by the meaning we give to our experiences."

The realization of self is not a laborious lifelong reexamination of the past but rather a creative venture that is renewed each and every moment. Adler says, "Here you are in the stream, and it's brought your life to where it is now. What will you add to this?" It's not enough to merely adapt. Adler says that mere adaptation is just a form of exploitation. He asks, "What are you going to add for the future? What would you improve upon?" It doesn't have to be something spectacular because we don't need spectacular things all the time; we need lots of little improvements. People ask themselves, where do I belong on this earth?; What's my role?; How do I fit?; What do I do? Adler's answer is simple; "You contribute, you invent."

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
The only joy in this life is to act.

Follow your bliss, (Joseph Campbell)
Do your will, (Aleister Crowley)
Be true to yourself, (origin unknown)
live and let live (origin unknown).

"But what if my true self is evil?"
If it were so, would you ask this question?

The sickness of the world lies in the dissonance of its participants,
how absurd it is that anyone need be told to "be themselves".

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