How logical-minded people can resolve the imperative "be yourself"

by phil on Thursday Feb 23, 2006 3:46 PM

On the surface, the problem with the imperative "be yourself" is similar to why "act naturally" is an oxymoron. What if pretending to be someone else all the time represents who you truly are?

It's better to remove words like "true," "pretend," and "act" as they can explode into overly general terms. Let's face it, we all go to parties and behave in atypical ways. So what exactly is truth and pretense?

However, if we redefine "being yourself" as actually behaving in a way that minimizes the projection of an intended personality, then we have something to work with.

Let's say you are normally shy, but when you go to parties, without conscious effort you transform into a social butterfly, then I'd say you were being yourself. Even though you are actually shy outside of the party-setting, the fact that you didn't set out to be a social butterfly actually keeps you real.

If on the other hand, you keep telling yourself, before you enter a party, "Okay, be nice, be nice, be nice." Then, you are not being yourself.

Party settings are perhaps bad examples, because some element of dramaturgy is always expected at those events. However, you can extend this intention-based definition of "being yourself" to relationships.

For example, if your lover, whenever she is around you, always makes a conscious effort to treat you well, then it'll come as a shock when you find out she doesn't actually love you despite all her nice gestures. It's important to include the word "conscious" effort. Because people make efforts all the time to help others and be gentle, but that effort was going to be there without their active thinking. If they naturally want to help you, it will feel like it "comes from the heart." If someone has to force themselves to help, then that person is seeking compensation for his or her efforts.

The problem with not being yourself is immediately apparent to most people as being disingenuous. But often not being yourself is extremely useful. In business, for example, putting in that effort is precisely what creating value is. And people accept in business that everybody is fake and courteous; that's the whole point: serve others' interests and you will be rewarded. But in relationships, it's amoral. If you have in your mind, "I need to keep this girl, let me treat her well," you're not being honest. Your act of treating someone well has to not be based on a cost-benefit rational analysis, but rather come about.. naturally.

There are also self-interest deficits to not being yourself in personal relations. One of which is that you trade on a personality that you cannot maintain. For example, there was a time when I made a strong effort to be friendly to everybody. But the end result was that everybody thought I was their friend. Then when it came time for them to ask me a favor, like to borrow my car, I'd reject them, and they'd be hurt, and I'd feel extremely guilty.

So, in summary the way to follow the imperative "be yourself" is to behave without intention. Go with the flow.


kopernikus said on February 23, 2006 4:36 PM:

I agree, in a way, that you shouldn't try to go too much against your own grain, if all it does is leave you crashing into a wall eventually. But it seems to that we can't just stop there, don't we want to evolve after all? If for example, we find that our current way of acting and relating to other people is too egotistical, shouldn't we slowly try to bring ourselves up to a level where we become more ecological beings and at the same time making it feel natural? Or whatever else it could be that we upon inquiry perceive has a potential value-wise. Just a thought...

Philip Dhingra said on February 23, 2006 9:48 PM:

Yeah, that's an interesting challenge. How do you resolve self-improvement with a desire to represent yourself authentically?

I don't have a clear-cut answer. My working answer I tell myself (because self-improvement is a big part of my life) is that it comes down to how you implement it. For example, if you read some readings from Buddha, it may inspire you to _be_ a better, more giving person. So basically, you spend time away from the real world absorbing yourself into a book, and in a way it trains and builds you. Then when you interact with people, without much conscious effort, that training and inspiration will permeate into your behavior

But if you read something from Dale Carnegie or Steven Covey, for example, with methods and techniques that you have to implement while in front of other people, then I think you are combining training/experimentation with execution. Tony Robbins or Covey may say something like, "next time you see the person you hate, imagine a warm ball of energy encompassing them with love." So this, to me, would not truly be being yourself. You are posing as if you have a trait of universal compassion. While as in the case of reading something from Buddha, your compassion has already been internalized.

In other words, it's a matter of mechanism. You can build yourself up on your own time, but when it comes to interacting with people, it should be you interacting with people without the clutter of some new stunt you're trying to pull off. That'd be the "conscious effort" or "intention" thing.

There's also this concept of "doing things for their own sake." I think things tend to be done for their own sake when we're acting naturally. If you're pulling a "universal compassion" stunt suggested by Robbins-Covey-Carnegie, then your behavior when working with people becomes goal-oriented and self-interest oriented. You're doing it in order to gain something in particular from this person. While as self-development that happens at a retreat somewhere is removed from the specific instances where it will be implemented, so its meaning becomes personal growth rather than achieving a good social effect just-in-time.

Does that make sense?

Strange Loops said on February 24, 2006 3:35 AM:

I dunno, man. I think the "be yourself" command is just ill-formed altogether. I like that you're trying to analyze it and find something more robust behind it, but in the end I think it becomes too shallow and malleable a phrase. People can mean lots of things by it, and really, it's what they mean by it that ends up mattering.

Sometimes you try to change yourself for the better, and other people see the change and think because it is *different* that you are not "being yourself". But that assumes some sort of static 'self' thing, which is patently absurd when you look at a human being over its ontogeny and development. We are evolving, ever-shifting creatures. We grow, and whatever the self is, it's not some simple static thing that is being assaulted any time we change.

I'm not sure why conscious effort at change should hold this lesser place. Whatever it was that *originally* shifted our goals/values (which desire in turn led to conscious attempts at change) was probably the same sort of personality-shaping event that might happen sometimes when reading Buddha. Behind it all is just the fact that we do, inevitably, change. No man steps in the same river twice, as Heraclitus said.

It seems to me there is no way *not* to be yourself. It's like someone in a deterministic world arguing about free will -- they were, ironically, determined to argue about free will; you can't escape it. And you can't escape being yourself, because whatever personality change you go through, it's just a changing you.

Of course, often people mean something much less broad when they say "be yourself". If you are deliberately deceiving people and telling lies, in the *larger* sense above, you're still being yourself (anything you do is encompassed in the definition of you); but what you're really being told with "be yourself" is "stop lying".

So really, it boils down to the scope and intention behind the phrase. In the larger sense it seems kinda of vacuous and unhelpful. In a particular instance, though, it often signifies some other thing the speaker is trying to get across (i.e. you're making an ass of yourself with this new behavior, wherever it came from).

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