There’s a lot of advice out there about being yourself. It’s generally in favour of the idea, and quite right too. The opposite of being yourself is not being yourself, and who wants that? Who would you be then? You’d be somebody else. And that can’t be right.
Here is a brief summary of prevailing self-help wisdom on the subject of being yourself:
– Find yourself.
– Be true to yourself.
– Don’t try to be something you’re not.
– Result: happiness.
Finding yourself has to come first, of course, otherwise you won’t know who the self is that you’re supposed to be true to. You can achieve this through travel, yoga, meditation, a career, a family – there are so many ways to do it that it’s amazing anyone has ever managed to lose themselves at all.
Once found, cling to your true self like a leprechaun clutching a tiny precious pot of gold. (In this analogy, your true self was at the end of the rainbow. If this feels a little too fey for your tastes, please imagine that you found your true self somewhere more butch, for example under a monster truck, and that the leprechaun is actually a tiny rugby player clutching a gold rugby ball. OK? Good.) Never do anything that isn’t dictated to you by your little gold item of choice, and you will achieve health and happiness and other good things probably also beginning with ‘h’. (Harlots? Hobbycraft? Ham? Halfords? Who knows.)
The problem with all this – or rather one of the problems – is that when people tell you to be yourself, what they tend to mean is “I know what you are really like. Be that person.” They mean well. They genuinely believe they want you to be yourself. But there will always be provisos.
To give an example: earlier this year I watched the US reality show The Glee Project. This was a search to find new cast members for US show Glee (with which I am somewhat obsessed). Glee is basically about singing, dancing, high school misfits with big dreams, and the contestants were therefore in the situation of needing to fit into that trope, while also being ‘themselves’. Authenticity was praised, but so was fitting in to the existing cast. You couldn’t come across as too pliable or conformist, but you’d get kicked out for not obeying instructions or causing hassle. And all this struck me as largely being how life is: it’s ok to talk about not fitting in, as long as you also make sure you do fit in.
One of the final contestants, Alex, was flamboyantly gay: initially this worked in his favour, and then it somehow started working against him. He kept being told to ‘be his real self’, show them the person underneath the camp. But when he did what they told him to – when he performed a quieter, sober number and won applause for it – I thought: they’re telling him to be himself, but they’re also telling him what that self should be like. Is that fair? Can’t being flamboyant and camp be who you really are?
There’s this tendency to assume that the deepest layer is the real one. But they’re all real. The skin of an apple is as real as the core (and, I would point out, much tastier). Maybe you’re someone who spends most of their time as a housewife and mother, but sometimes likes to get dressed up in black eyeliner and big stompy boots, and go to goth clubs. Or you’re really shy at work, but a karaoke fiend in the evenings. Or you’re 60 but you like miniskirts, or techno, or World of Warcraft. Are you pretending to be someone you’re not? Are you being your truest self? Or are you just expressing different facets of your overall personality? Trying to be something you’re not may be a bad thing, but who’s to say what you are and what you aren’t?
And anyway, people don’t really mind you trying to be something you’re not. They mind you trying to be something they don’t think you should be. After all, many people aren’t thin and rich, but working to become those things is very much encouraged by society. But don’t act posh if you weren’t born to it, and shave your legs, and don’t wear pink if you’re a straight boy, and don’t go clubbing if you’re over 30. Why not? Because changing yourself is good, except when it isn’t. And being yourself is good, except when it’s not. All in all, it’s probably best to shrug, dust off those stompy boots, and go dancing.