To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying is to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you have ever spoken with anyone about feelings of self-doubt, fear or uncertainty about doing something new, it is quite possible that you might have been encouraged or advised to just “Be yourself”. I’ll even admit that this is a prescription I have given to my 11-year-old daughter, friends, and colleagues when they have expressed concerns about joining a new team, exploring a relationship or navigating a tough situation. As a matter of fact, I recently received the same advice during a conversation where I was being vulnerable about an issue that was bothering me. As I listened to this “be yourself’ advice, I couldn’t help but question whether those two words of assurance would be helpful to me as I worked through my issues. Yet, the givers of this advice (myself included) always appear convinced and confident that this simple advice is the best solution to the problem or issue. But, it isn’t.
On a surface level, telling someone to just be yourself or be authentic might seem like solid and great advice. But this advice can be confusing on many levels, and it raises a ton of questions. Afterall, which self are you advising them to be? Is it their past self, their today self, or their aspirational self (the better version of ourselves) that each of us hope to one day meet? What if they haven’t yet figured out who they are or want to be? And to make it more complex- in which one of their roles? As individuals, we have different layers and roles which are likely to affect or influence how we show up in different situations. I for one have several roles, that of mother, daughter, sister, manager to name a few. And how I show up or my abilty to be myself can depend on the context and the situation I am dealing with. So be yourself, can be very complex and problematic advice.
Why Be Yourself is Terrible Advice?
In her Harvard Business Review article, Herminia Ibarra offers up three ways for us to look at and understand the concept of authenticity:
- Being true to yourself and acting in ways that are true to your nature or personality
- Being sincere by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
- Staying true to your values and the fundamental core beliefs that guide you.
Therefore, being authentic requires us to be fully self-aware and to practice acceptance of ourselves – values, beliefs, flaws, quirks, strengths and all. Being authentic encourages individuals to be at peace with themselves despite the perceptions of others and other worldly influences. This is important because trying to be someone else drains energy and is the surest route to an unhappy and unfulfilling life.
However, depending on the definition we choose, being authentic or staying true to one’s personality can be used by an individual to mask stubbornness or an unwillingness to change. And if we are not careful, being authentic or staying true to our personality can stunt our personal growth, maturity and have major implications for our personal and professional development and advancement. For example, how many times have you heard or seen someone miss an opportunity because they were asked to do something that was outside of their comfort zone or require them to stretch a little to learn a new skill? I have seen people self-sabotage or pass up opportunities to advance in their career because of their own self-limiting beliefs that they didn’t have the personality to do one thing or another.
Likewise, I have also seen people fail because they didn’t acknowledge that the skills that got to them to one level would not take them to their next level. And in these trade off moments, we will need to balance doing what we need to be effective with being ourselves. Navigating these crucial moments can be tricky because most of us define ourselves in terms of the skills and competencies that got us to one point. Getting to the next level or moving up in the organization might require us to show up differently than we are accustomed to. This can be unsettling for some people who fear that they might have to sacrifice their values and integrity or be seen as a “sell out” because they changed paths. This uncertainty about what it means to be themselves then produces a version of them that is at best cautious, conservative but not truly authentic or reflective of who they want to be.
What Authenticity Really Means?
So, should we be authentic or not?
And what does it mean in real life?
Truth is, none of us are the same today as we were five years ago, and we also won’t be the same five years from today. As we journey through life, from one stage to the next, we make decisions and experience life events (marriage, parenting, loss, career advancement) that shape us and challenge our perspectives and our deeply help beliefs. Therefore, subscribing to the idea of being yourself is unrealistic, risky and fails to acknowledge that we are never any one thing or person. It also locks us into people perceptions of who they think we are and their expectations of how they think we should be or act. But as individuals, we are constantly evolving, learning, unlearning and with that comes permission to change our minds, perspectives, and responses to the people around and the world around us.
So, in a world where so many of us feel so much pressure to live up to the standards and expectations of others, how can we be authentic? I suggest that you reflect on what that means to you and consider embracing a broader perspective that says that being yourself or being authentic is:
- Choosing to lead your own self by digging deep to figure out what you truly want, your passions, your talents, your strengths, and your weaknesses.
- Freedom to let go of your fears and other people’s perception and expectations of you as you forge your own path.
- Knowing that your best self isn’t a destination since you are still becoming.
- Embracing a mindset that recognizes that you have many layers. You can be this and still be that.
- Deciding not to hide your feelings, thoughts, your voice and standing by your convictions.
- Meeting people right where they are at and not twisting yourself in/out of shape to become who they need you to be.
In closing, navigating life journey will require us to balance doing what we need to do and being ourselves. This can cause us to feel fake or inauthentic, but it isn’t. You can be authentic and change and grow. Being authentic considers who you are and the situation, not one at the expense of another. The key is to be intentional about shaping yourself rather than being shaped by your circumstances.
Until next time, Remember, It’sALearningLife!