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What It Actually Means To "Just Be Yourself"

“I have a date tonight and I’m nervous.”

“Why? Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

“I have to give a presentation to 100 people and I’m nervous.”

“Why? Just be yourself and you’ll be fine.”

It seems as though a common response to any expression of personal angst, social anxiety, and insecurity is that we should just be ourselves, period. Once we pull that off, everything will fall into place just perfectly.

But what does it mean to “just be yourself”? Even for those of us who have invested considerable time in a self-discovery journey and are generally self-aware, such a statement can leave us feeling rather confused, as if “just being ourselves” is as easy as relaxing our shoulders and letting out our breath that we’ve been holding in for about 40-plus years.

I’ve had many experiences where I was keenly aware that I was just being myself — when I was “on,” funny, quick, and sharp (and my hair looked really good too). I just love those times. But I’m not sure whether I could pinpoint anything I did to feel (or act) that way…was I a particularly good self-cheerleader that day? Did I work out extra hard? Did I wear more mascara? Did I eat more fruit and get more sleep? Honestly, I have no idea. Sometimes I think other people have an ability to bring out our better sides, but if that is all there is to just being ourselves then we’re doomed, since we would essentially have no control over our own self-acceptance and self-expressions, other than hanging out with the right people.

When I’ve pondered the concept of what it means to just be myself I recognized that there are two parts of me — my internal world, and my outer expression (the parts of me that I choose to show others). We can have a solid sense of who we are on the inside, and then completely fall apart when it comes to showing others who we are, because standing up for ourselves, expressing our opinions, acting goofy, sharing our innermost thoughts, standing firm, or walking away all have consequences (some good, some not-so-good). When I have struggled with self-expression — just being myself with others, it’s most often because somewhere deep inside I questioned my right to do so, or I questioned whether I’d be accepted, or I didn’t want to risk potential fall-out in my relationships.

Whenever I write a blog where I share my innermost secrets, I must admit that there is a part of me that lets out a sigh of relief when someone posts a comment expressing understanding, and agreement. Whew! I’m not the only one! But why is this necessary? If I truly embraced my own uniqueness, as I say I do, then why do I need a consensus? Isn’t it enough that I believe, feel, perceive, need and want certain things? Do I need others’ approval in order to trust in my own uniqueness? (Apparently I do). I always chuckle and shake my head (on the inside) whenever anyone tells me that they do not care at all what others think of them. In all my years as a social worker and therapist, I have never met such a person. We all care (to a greater or lesser extent); it’s a part of the human condition.

But here is the dilemma that each of us needs to consider — how can we remain connected to those we care about, accept feedback, appropriately accommodate others in a range of social relationships (family, work, personal), and still hold onto ourselves? We live in a world that tells us from a very early age that we are not enough. We need to be better, smarter, prettier, thinner, stronger (weaker). We give our kids awards for good grades, but often let incidences of demonstrated empathy and love slip by unnoticed. For many of us, we are only as good as our last accomplishments. “Just being ourselves” somehow implies that we are lazy, complacent and just don’t care about becoming better people.

But what if we have it all wrong? What if our achievements, our desires for growth and self-betterment emanate from our ability to rest in our own uniqueness? What if it’s authentic self-acceptance and our insistence on being our true self that allows us the freedom to love others, to compromise, to be good caregivers, to achieve?

I have learned through the years what it means to be my own unique self, and trust me when I say that this was no easy task. First, I needed to figure out who I was, really and truly, without too much outside interference. But then I faced the daunting task of expressing my true self, being true to myself in such a way that showed my light and reflected my comfort being in my own skin. I used to be demanding in my “right” to self-expression. I was unyielding, particularly in the face of criticism or challenge. I was defensive and easily wounded. But I wasn’t expressing my true uniqueness during this stage in my life; rather I was expressing my insecurity and self-doubt. If we are truly confident in who we are, we don’t need to scream it from a mountain top.

So what does it mean to rest in our unique self? It means that our worlds aren’t rocked when someone disagrees with us. It means we recognize our right to have an opinion, and to express it with gentle firmness. It means that we can make decisions without broad consensus. It means that we are not defined solely by our successes. It means that our opinion of ourselves means every bit as much (and more, in fact) that the opinions others have of us (because we are the experts on ourselves, not others). It means we give ourselves credit. It means we believe we are not imposters. It means that we deserve the very best the world has to offer. It means we have worth (yes, even when we’ve made terrible mistakes). It means accepting ourselves and our choices (good and bad), without being defensive.

I believe that others are naturally drawn toward honesty and authenticity, to those who have the courage to lay down their mask and be present in the world, emotionally and spiritually naked. I believe that truth resonates within all of us, even when we don’t realize it. I believe that when we feel defensiveness rising within us, like bile in our throats, we are reacting to someone (or something) treading too close to a truth we’d rather keep hidden. Maybe this truth is a lie we’ve told ourselves (or others have told us) — that we aren’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough (or weak enough), or maybe it’s something we’re denying — a mistake we’ve made, a feeling we have, a fear that controls us, something that makes us feel ashamed. I believe it is self-doubt that keeps us from becoming the person of our dreams, not self-love.

When I became committed to the journey of self-discovery and the expression of my true and unique self I began by authentically accepting the parts of me that I felt were the most unacceptable. That doesn’t mean I stopped striving to be a better person, but rather than using achievement to cover my weaknesses, in a quid pro quo sort of way, I accepted my weaknesses as a part of me that deserved to live alongside the stronger aspects of myself, not underneath them. I am someone who has made many mistakes in my life, but those are for me to judge and accept — no one else. If someone says to me “boy, you have made some terrible mistakes in relationships” I no longer bristle and defend, because that is a very true statement. Instead I respond with “yes, I have areas of strength and areas of weakness, and I am in very good company.”

Next, I started listening to and heeding my inner voice. If you’re like me and you were taught at an early age to ignore your inner voice, or if the world has slapped you down enough that you don’t trust your inner voice, then this will take some time. In the beginning, my inner voice was just a whisper, but as I began to trust it, it became louder, and I questioned its wisdom less and less. Now if I have a gut instinct about something, I trust it, and am patient in allowing my insights to catch up (my insights usually run about a week or so behind my instincts). Rarely do my instincts let me down. Even that dreaded pit in my stomach when a romantic relationship starts going south is now my best friend, because even that is my inner voice trying to tell me something important.

Anita Moorjani, author of Dying To Be Me, said it best when she wrote, “Every time you look in the mirror, remind yourself that you are a perfect child of the universe who is here to be true to yourself. Your only purpose is to be yourself. To try to be anyone else would be depriving the universe of who you really are.”

How can we ever expect to find love again, to be cherished and valued in a relationship when we keep our true self hidden? Perhaps the first love relationship we need to have, when we are searching for romance, is with ourselves. Maybe once we learn to love ourselves, and our own uniqueness, rather than looking for someone to complete us, we will finally be able to connect with another human being who truly compliments us, in all ways, including in self-expression, acceptance and love.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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