What Does It Mean
to Be Yourself?

by Jonathan J. Dickau ©'98,'02
- all rights reserved

        Being yourself is something which can, and should, come naturally, but often this is more difficult than it sounds. You see, being genuine is not regarded by our culture as having the same importance as being right, or being able to justify ones actions. Authenticity is something we all possess, but most people are caught up in the drive for acceptance and approval, to the extent where they no longer feel genuine unless there is a consensus among those who are important to them, that who they are, and what they are doing, is OK. In effect, we deny ourselves the right to be "real," or at least to feel that way, unless someone else agrees. As young children, we express ourselves quite spontaneously, but for many adults this is sometimes a great challenge. The reasons for this are a result of what we learn as we grow up, while attempting to fulfill our innate need to be loved.

        In the course of our development, as human beings, we acquire many traits which arise from our experience, and constitute our conditioned responses. We learn that some things we do will gain the approval of others, and appropriate rewards, while different actions will result in varying degrees of disapproval, or punishment, and this shapes us over time. There are some who believe that this conditioning is the key to understanding a person, and they are right, to some extent. To assert that this is all there is to a person, however, one must assume that we are all born with a blank slate for a personality, and that everyone is equipped with a similar set of skills to be developed. From what I have seen, though, conditioning, personality traits, and abilities, all manifest independently.

        In addition, the expectations of others, and the resources available to bring our dreams and desires to fruition, also vary independently. Frustration comes about when these factors are pulling us in different directions, at the same time. What we feel, what we think we want, what we really want, what others would like, what we are capable of, and what is expected, can all be different. The result of this condition is often confusion about the best course of action to take. To make such a decision, when our deciding factors are in conflict, requires courage, savvy, and forbearance. We must each make difficult choices, and these choices will shape our character as we act upon them. What kind of person you become, in the future, follows from what you believe now, and what you do today, but don't you wish you could just be yourself, and not worry about such things?

        So, what does it mean to "be yourself," living "in the moment?" Does what comes naturally to us, as adults, reflect what's "best," or even most "natural," in the context of our own personality type, or in the service of what is highest and best for ourselves and for our world? Is it more a matter of conditioning, or circumstances? Is our "nature" about our choices, and what we are to ourselves? Does what's "best" need to be in conflict with what's "natural," or can the two be the same sometimes? How about "us" and "them?" Does what's best for us, as individuals, need to be in conflict with others, or the with world where we live? Is it reasonable to believe that the two can be the same, or at least be in harmony? Our beliefs about these issues determine, to some extent, our strategy for dealing with the problems we encounter in our lives. We use them to decide whether our own concerns, and our inner world, or the concerns of others, and the outer world, are more important.

        If we consistently favor the demands of the outside world, we eventually assume a nature that is subservient to others, or at least to the pressures the outside world puts on us. People who live this way may be more helpful to the world at large, becoming valuable members of our society, and model citizens, in terms of the way they relate to others, solve community problems, and assist the survival of our world. This comes at a price, however, since one who is outer-directed to too great a degree can also become dependent upon others for approval, and potentially for material support, unless they are well provided for. It is possible for these people to experience resentment when their efforts go unnoticed, or appear unappreciated. When they need a favor, and nobody offers to help, they might wonder if their basic instincts serve them at all, or they may become jaded about the "state of the world," feeling it to be filled with callous or uncaring people.

        If people consistently favor the demands of their own inner world, however, without regard to the way one's actions will affect others in their life, or the rest of the world, this causes a different nature to emerge, with both advantages and problems of its own. When you are inner-directed, this gives you a certain measure of independence of the opinions and actions of others, and allows you to be far more effective in the pursuit of various kinds of goals, especially those which don't require you to cooperate with others. On the other hand, excessive inner-directedness tends to make people more self-centered, more critical of other people, and more likely to sacrifice friends and loved ones, or even the world itself, for the immediate satisfaction of honoring their individual desires. After a while, such individuals tend to become isolated, as they eventually alienate all of the people who truly care about them, leaving them in the company of others who are as selfish as they are.

        Wherever our choices take us is not a final result, however, but an ongoing process. The pursuit of fulfillment appears to be a natural outgrowth of this process, as actually achieving a state of being "fulfilled" seems to require a balance of inner and outer factors, a harmony of self with others, without which the accomplishment of many goals seems hollow, at best. Being a "success" doesn't necessarily make you feel good about yourself, but "feeling good," of itself, won't necessarily lead to fulfillment either. To be truly fulfilled, one must create a sustainable condition for one's own happiness, and this is difficult, or perhaps impossible, without a measure of both independence, and care for the welfare of others. In this sense, to find fulfillment may be the ultimate spiritual goal, because this pursuit leads to a condition where you have a positive regard for yourself, the others in your life, and the world at large. So, you may ask, how does this relate to being yourself?

        To some extent, what keeps us from being ourselves is our conditioning, or the pretenses we have adopted in service of our beliefs about "self" and others. It has been proposed that one can't be oneself totally, so long as a person is a slave to their conditioning, and that to realize the state of "being yourself," you need to rise above your conditioned responses to life's challenges, and live in your freedom of choice. So, can you just "let go," to "be yourself," and realize fulfillment? Sadly, this is seldom the case. Most people require a process of "unlearning" some of the habitual responses they've come to identify with, along the way. You see, people learn to adopt a pose of compliance at a very early age, and later learn to internalize the split between "me" and "not-me," to such a degree that it's hard for many adults to cease the chatter of their own internal dialog long enough to step outside the box they have put themselves in. The problem is that somewhere along the way we lost track of just how many times the boundary between "me" and "not-me" had been crossed, who we were being "real" for, and which "me" is the "real" one anyway?

        We all have such choices in the context of our life situations. Choosing what traits we wish to identify with, defines who we believe ourselves to be, and being yourself is related to the pursuit of fulfillment, in a fundamental way. People can't be truly fulfilled without honoring their own being, but it requires that you know who you really are, and what you really want, for things to come together on their own. If we want to be ourselves, the questions we need to answer first are, "Just who is this self?", and "Why do we talk about being as something we do?" The first question must, of necessity, remain somewhat open-ended, as the very nature of who we are is connected to the act of choosing, and to the freedom of choice, in general. We can partially answer the second question, however.

        Humans are born choice-makers, although we are sometimes reluctant to use our freedom of choice, and we're as often constrained to act within the boundaries set by the choices of others. We are furnished with a vehicle which is equipped or enhanced for choosing, our own body. It's my belief that this nature is ours, in part, because it is actually the nature of the universe, and of the reality to which our universe belongs, to evolve living beings capable of making real choices. Who we are, therefore, depends on our choices, to some degree. Our individual identity is always evolving, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, as we become what we do, but being yourself often means to stand as an individual, in contrast to this concept of self. Nonetheless, our choices shape our character, and we have to live with them, and with ourselves, for the rest of our lives. Knowing this can make it challenging to let go of all concern, however, in order to be yourself.

        So, who is this self we are being, and why do we speak of being as something we do? It helps to have a bit of perspective, with a clear concept of a higher self, and some awareness of a greater whole, if you hope to do something meaningful, but what is required in order to just be someone? It seems to be a paradox. One one level, it's obvious that we are each quite real, and therefore genuine and authentic, without having to do anything special. From another perspective, however, this fact doesn't amount to much. It's quite reasonable to assert that we should be active, and serve a useful function, but the cultural dictum digs a bit deeper. To some extent, our culture systematically disenfranchises those who fail to find an acceptable role in our society. Without a proper position or a title, you are deemed unworthy of respect, by many people. In this way, it is determined that one must become something meaningful in order to be regarded as authentic. Others, who don't measure up, are regarded as non-entities, and often treated as though they don't matter.

        "Who am I?", and "What do I want?", are very, very different from "What will I be, when I grow up?", but it seems that many adults have gotten these things confused, in the process of maturing. Society embraces and encourages this perception, in many ways aggravating our identity crisis. People end up thinking in terms of what they are, and what they do, as if that is the measure of our soul, but that isn't the entire story, not by a long shot. Who we really are is far more magnificent than any role we may be playing! On the other hand, very few people ever come close to reaching their full potential, and those who do will tell you that there is almost always a little something more which can be done. Having a sense of your own potential, then, means to embrace this idea of personal growth, so that you can become the means of achieving your own fulfillment, and contribute more to the lives of others. This too can be a part of being yourself, if you want it to be. There is always another step to take, a way to go beyond your current abilities, or your current level of understanding. We are always learning, but many people are still trying to figure out what they are doing, and some believe that this process goes on as long as we do.

        Having a sense of knowing why you are here seems to aid in this process, as well, because it serves to build bridges between the world of pure potential, or possibilities, and the physical, or substantial, reality. Specifically, if people feel that what they are doing is meaningful, this can make everyday life special, and help to create the sense of a higher purpose. This is good, since a sense of purpose helps people to focus on where they are going, rather than being caught up in where they have come from. By focusing on their potential, and staying in the process, what an individual can accomplish is almost limitless. So, if you can be anything, what sort of future will you create for yourself? Who do you want to be, and what do you want to have, in your life? Who, and what, you become influences the process of being yourself, as it changes what you have to work with, but living for the future is very different from living in, or for, the moment. On the other hand, living in the present doesn't guarantee that our actions are an honest, or sincere, representation of who we really are, either. Wild animals don't seem to spend a lot of time wondering what to do, but their choices are more limited. The problem is that we're human, you see, and we must choose how to act.

        Face it. You are always acting. The very act of being here, in a physical body, constitutes acting. There is never a moment when you're not in the midst of an act. Take a hint from Old Will (Shakespeare); the world is a stage, and we are always playing, always acting upon her, and depending on her support. While we act on the stage of the Earth, she acts upon the stage of the Solar System (the Sun's playground), which acts upon the stage of the Milky Way, and so on. Likewise, you are an assemblage of actors playing on the stage of your own being, from your thoughts and feelings, to the rudiments of consciousness, or from your internal organs, and the cells they are made of, down to the tiny loops of energy of which your atoms are made, you are acting out a process of being who you are. In effect, the various parts of your being are playing you, in every moment, but in every moment you are also acting, always part of the play yourself. Choose to act impeccably, therefore, because this leads to freedom, and that brings more opportunities to be yourself.

        On the other hand, there is no need to get uptight about it. Be playful! Be who you are, and do what you feel. Being yourself doesn't need to be a chore. Be happy with who you are, and you are more than half way there. To some extent, the rest is automatic. You're already being yourself, at this very moment, but there is no reason to believe that who you are ends with who you think you are, right now. We can all grow beyond certain limitations, and we should give ourselves the chance to do so. Being yourself, however, also means affirming just that, including all your natural talents and proclivities, so that you can make the best possible use of your own best assets. You don't have to pretend to be something you're not, in order to be the someone who you are. It's not necessary. In the final analysis, being yourself is simply that. We all have things we're good at, or enjoy doing, and other things which we'd rather not have to deal with at all. Affirm your own strengths and preferences, being comfortable with yourself, as well as trying to satisfy others, and the rest will come naturally.

        When we can share a little more of our true selves with others, without what we share offending the other person, we create a sense of kinship which helps to heal the separation between us. Being honest, or genuine, is the capstone of being yourself. If you must always remain aloof of others, by keeping your true identity a secret from everybody, or by hoarding your natural gifts and hiding what you know from them, it makes it very difficult to be yourself at all. Being authentic requires that you trust others somewhat, and this is often difficult, since people must render themselves vulnerable when they open up to others, but it is exactly what you must do, if you wish to drop your pretenses and really be yourself. There are often consequences for saying the wrong thing, when we are trying to be candid, however. It is therefore desirable to consider the possible impact of what you are about to say, before you speak. Gestures, of all kinds, can likewise be mis-interpreted. Nor is every kind of behavior appropriate, no matter who you really are. This is why it can be so difficult to be yourself. It takes guts! On the other hand, I am relatively sure that you are better at it than anyone else around.

        So, what does it really mean to be yourself? If our instincts are dulled from years of living as part of human culture, does this mean that there is no hope for us to be natural? Thankfully, this isn't the case. What's required is actually fairly simple, in fact, it's simplicity itself, or rather, childlike innocence. Learning to play more, being more open and less pretentious, re-discovering and cultivating a sense of awe and wonder about life, and losing a little self-importance, will awaken your inner child, and allow you to be far more natural in your demeanor. This is the essence of being yourself! Perhaps, to some extent, "being yourself" is something you do, when you don't have anything else left which you must do, which might keep you from being at-ease and natural, but it doesn't have to end there. When people learn to set their masks aside, to reveal a little of who they really are, they create opportunities for personal growth, and interpersonal relationships, which might not otherwise exist. Therein lies the magic power of being yourself.

©'98,'02 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved

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first posted July 11, 2002