“Be yourself,” people say to people. “Live your truth,” is another one of my favorites. You know what I say? I say this can be some very bad advice. What is a self? A self is the core of a person. A self is how we distinguish ourselves from other people. But selves aren’t made in vacuums. Selves are the consequences of our biology that has been passed on to us from our natural parents. Selves are the result of our environment because we grew up in a certain place at a certain time with a certain of group of people. What we include in our construction of self is indeed socially constructed – both biologically and environmentally. But perhaps most importantly, a self is also a matter of the individual choices that we make.
Language is a very important concept. We don’t often pay attention to how we say things and what me mean when we say them in our everyday vernacular. I have often told this story that in my native Nigerian language, Urhobo, there is no word that allows an older person to greet a younger person first; a younger person always greets an older person first. The greeting is, “Migwo” which translates directly in English as, “I am on my knees.” An older person responds by saying, “Get up.” This interaction is telling of the culture in which respect towards the elderly is emphasized greatly. In language, we find culture and power structures and values of people. I tell this story because it is a foundation for my beliefs as to why “Be yourself” can be useless and even destructive as a way of thinking.
When we tell people to be themselves or live their truths or things of that nature, it seems to me that we are releasing them from a power to make a choice about who they want to be. And dare I say, perhaps who they ought to be. The essence of the notion to be one’s self insinuates that there is a self that we have hidden in some magical place where we have a key; and should we decide to, we can use this key to open up the door to this magical place, and voilà our self will be found there. The notion that we should simply live according to what we think are our feelings in the moment, and that this is equivalent to some kind of relative truth that encompasses who we are is not without consequences. Of course we qualify potential consequences to the notion by adjusting for not hurting other people. But even beyond the extremes of potentially telling some people to be themself, there is the negative result of being unaware of our freedom to not just be who we are.
I think the problem with this way of thinking –“be yourself” – is that we make other people and other things responsible for who we are rather than ourselves. I think rendering people to just being themselves is the equivalent of telling them to be nothing other than the sum-total of all the social constructs and popular devices that determine their identity; their self. Telling people to just do what they feel in the moment leaves nothing more than a self that is unprincipled, shaky, and enslaved to one’s feelings. And I don’t know about you but sometimes my feelings are way, way, off. Sometimes feelings are the last things we should adhere to because what we want and what is good and right and best for us, isn’t always the same thing.
Maybe “being who you are” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Who we are is terrifying complicated and the sum of so many things; yet at the same time I think many of us know that we can be very simple creatures. I just think that more often than not, when we are telling other people to be who they are, we are failing to recognize that there is choice in who that person can be. And that sometimes it is in our best interests to sacrifice what we want for the choice of what is best. And it is not always because who we are is not good enough. But because by being who we are, we can be selling ourselves short and keeping ourselves from being more, being different, being greater. Being who we are can keep us from being who we can become.