Just be yourself. That sentence is quite possibly the most commonly used phrase in the history of advice: Be yourself. It’s such a vague adage. What do they really mean when they tell you to be yourself? And is it really as easy as it sounds?
Find yourself and define yourself on your terms. Oscar Wilde once said with his usual wit: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. As humorous as this might seem, it’s a basic summation of the truth. Yet, you can’t be yourself if you don’t know, understand, and accept yourself first. It should be your primary goal to find this out. Find the time to dwell upon what you value and take time to consider what makes up the essence of who you are. As part of this, contemplate your life and choices. Try to think about what kinds of things you would or wouldn’t like to do, and act accordingly; finding out through trial and error helps more than you might think it does. You can even take personality tests, but be careful to only take what you want from them so that you do not let such tests define you. Instead, ensure that the defining you do is based on your own terms and is something you feel absolutely comfortable with. You may feel self-conscious, but over time if you are around the right type of people for you, they will accept you for who you are. And love and start to look at the real you.
In finding your values, don’t be surprised if some of them seem to conflict. This is a natural result of taking on broad values from a variety of sources, including culture, religion, mentors, inspiring people, educational sources, etc. What does matter is that you continue working through these conflicts to resolve what values feel most true to yourself.
Avoid fixating on the past and not letting yourself grow. One of the most unhealthy approaches to being oneself is to make a decision that who you are is defined by a moment or period of time, after which you spend the rest of your life trying to still be that person from the past rather than someone who is still you but grows with the passing of each season and decade. Allow yourself this space to grow, to improve, to become wiser. And allow yourself to forgive past errors and past behaviors you’re not so proud of. Work on accepting mistakes and choices you’ve made; they’re done and in the past. You had your reasons for them and the decision made sense at the time, so instead of harnessing yourself to past mistakes, allow yourself to learn their lessons and continue to grow.
Look for people around you who proudly proclaim they are no different than they were the day they turned 16 or 26 or 36, or whatever. Do these people seem flexible, easygoing, happy people? Often they are not because they are so busy insisting that nothing has changed for them ever, that they’re incapable of taking on new ideas, learning from others, or growing. They might believe adamantly that they are “being themselves” but in reality they are often enslaved by the past and a particular image of themselves that they would have done better to have released long ago. Growth into every new age and stage of our lives is an essential part of being true to ourselves and to being emotionally healthy and whole.
Stop caring about how people perceive you. Some of them will like you and some of them won’t. Either attitude is as likely to be right or wrong. It’s next-to-impossible to be yourself when you’re caught up in constantly wondering “Do they think I’m funny? Does she think I’m fat? Do they think I’m stupid? Am I good/clever/popular enough to be a part of their group of friends?” To be yourself, you’ve got to let go of these concerns and just let your behavior flow, with only your consideration of others as a filter — not their consideration of you. Besides, if you change yourself for one person or group, another person or group may not like you, and you could go on forever in a vicious cycle trying to please people instead of focusing on building up your talents and strengths; being a people-pleaser or always wanting everyone’s love and respect is a totally pointless exercise in the end that can harm your personal development and confidence. Who cares what other people say? As Eleanor Roosevelt said once, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” and what matters most is that you listen to your own inner confidence and if it’s missing, that you start developing it!
Does this mean no one’s opinion in life matters? No. It hurts if you’re socially rejected. If you’re forced into a situation where you must spend most or all of your time among people who can’t stand you for reasons of their own, it’s dangerous to internalize their negative ideas of who you are. What you can do is exercise some choice in whose opinions you value more than others. It’s much healthier to pay attention to people who genuinely mean you well and who agree with you about what you want to do with your life.
Be careful though, an individual can mean you well, but it may be only on their own terms. This could steer you down the wrong path, and with all the passion of true consideration for your well being. Maybe they think you’d be better off in a different occupation, different lifestyle or religion. Think of an enthusiastic evangelist from any religion. In the path to being yourself many people think religion, regardless of which one it is, as a true path. The only true path is under your feet, walking others path will just take you wherever they went.
Don’t trivialize it if you face negative social pressure or bullying. It’s easier to withstand it if you are aware of it as pressure and build healthy defenses. Building up a circle of trusted friends and people who share your views and beliefs in life is a good way to help reduce the impact of hostile people. You can tell yourself their opinions don’t matter, and they shouldn’t, but that’s a lot easier when there are others who agree with you and stand by you. If you are alone that is fine, just think about how the people in your life who care about you. Then compare them to whoever the bully is; suddenly you can realize that their opinion of you, your family or your lifestyle, is worthless. We inherently care about the opinions of those we respect and look up to. This works both ways; if you someone has no respect for you than what they say is just empty words coming from someone who is only one step above being a total stranger.
Learn the difference between intimidating, sarcastic, conniving, or thoughtless comments from others and constructive criticism which is well intended. It will focus on real faults that you don’t know about, and could do with remedying. In the latter case, people such as parents, mentors, teachers, coaches, etc., might well be telling you things that you need to digest and mull over at your own pace, to make self-improvements for the better. The difference is that their critique of you is intended to be helpful. They care about you and are interested in how you grow as a person, and are respectful. Learn how to spot the difference and you will live well, dismissing pointless negative critiques, and learning from the constructive critique.
Be honest and open. What have you got to hide? We’re all imperfect, growing, learning human beings. If you feel ashamed or insecure about any aspect of yourself — and you feel that you have to hide those parts of you, whether physically or emotionally — then you have to come to terms with that and learn to convert your so-called flaws into individualistic quirks or simply as basic, down-to-earth acknowledgments of your own imperfections. Be honest with yourself, but don’t beat yourself up; apply this philosophy to others, as well. There is a difference between being critical and being honest; learn to watch the way you say things to yourself and others when being honest.
Try the tactic of owning up to your imperfections mid-argument with someone. You will often discover that suddenly you’ve removed the very reason for stubbornly holding the line of argument, which is often about preserving face and not giving in. The moment you say, “Yeah, look I get really irritable when the room’s in a mess too. And I acknowledge that I shouldn’t leave my clothes in a pile on the floor and yet, I do it because that’s a lazy part of myself I’m still trying to train out of the habit. I’m sorry. I know I could do better, and I will try.”, you suddenly infuse an argument with genuine self-honesty that disarms the entire point of the argument, which in this case is messy habits but could apply to anything about your own behavior.