So often we hear “just be yourself.” Or we read articles about being “authentic.” But what does this really mean? And what does it actually look like?
“Being yourself requires knowing and being comfortable with the different parts of yourself, owning those parts and remaining true to it, even in the face of doubt,” said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah. This is something we explore regularly because we naturally evolve and grow, she said.
Thorn also likes this definition from Brené Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
California clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, believes that “being yourself is about integrity, having your external behaviors match your internal feelings and beliefs.” Anna Osborn, LMFT, a psychotherapist who practices in Sacramento, Calif., agreed. “Being yourself means trusting your inner voice and having that voice echoed in your choices and actions.” It means that we don’t change our core beliefs or values in order to be accepted by others.
Knowing & Exploring Ourselves
Of course, first we have to know what our beliefs are. We have to know ourselves. This sounds like common sense. But many of us are so busy running around and checking off our lists that we neglect to actually go within and self-reflect. We also become fixated on what and who we should be.
Howes once worked with a man who wanted help managing his stress at his highly demanding job. “I asked him why he chose that career in the first place and he said he’d never thought about it before. He just always assumed it’s what he would do because most men in his family do the same work.” Howes and his client started exploring what he actually wanted to do—and he started moving toward that kind of work.
Asking ourselves questions is a powerful way to explore who we are. Thorn suggested considering these questions:
- What are my morals and values?
- What do I find satisfying, meaningful and enjoyable?
- What are my religious/spiritual views?
- What type of career do I want and why?
- What “masks” do I wear and why?
- What do I look for in different types of relationships (e.g., friendships, significant others, family)?
- What are my fears, and how do they hold me back?
- What was my family of origin like, and how is what I experienced affecting me now?
- What are my strengths and weaknesses?
Howes suggested making it a habit to ask ourselves “Why?” For instance, “Why am I angry? Why do I go to Starbucks every day? Why do I avoid one of my co-workers?” “And dig down a little with ‘But really, why?’”
Osborn stressed the importance of not letting the “noise” of other people, pop culture and the media dictate our beliefs and values. Instead, she suggested journaling, working with a therapist, prayer and meditation (she really likes Wayne Dyer’s I Am Wishes Fulfilled Meditation).
Below are three suggestions on how you can start to be yourself.
“You may be surprised to find that you’re not alone,” Howes said. For instance, he knows a young man who was deeply ashamed about his credit card and student loan debt. He didn’t want to say anything to his friends because he feared being judged or excluded. He finally took a risk and talked about his debt and anxiety over it.
Almost everyone else had a similar story—and felt just as ashamed. “After that night they found cheaper ways to hang out, and their conversations were much more honest and open.”
Many people avoid being assertive because they think it’s rude or mean. But actually “assertiveness is all about being able to say what you need to, while still being kind and respectful, and allowing room to hear other people, as well,” Thorn said.
People also avoid being assertive because they assume their discomfort means it’s a bad idea. However, being direct about what we think or want can be anxiety-provoking because we care about the other person (and maybe we’re a people-pleaser, too).
Thorn suggested acknowledging your anxiety. You might say to someone: “I’ve been worried about talking to you about this, because I really care about you, and I would never want you to feel hurt or upset by me. However, because I value our relationship so much, I feel it’s important to let you know what I think about this.”
Don’t put too much pressure on resolving to be yourself overnight, Howes said. “Not only are you in a habit of acting and relating that has been rehearsed for years, everyone in your social circle expects that person to show up to the party, which reinforces the behavior.” To act with more authenticity, he suggested starting small and gradually.
For instance, express your opinion more; tell your friends how you feel; speak up if you don’t want to visit your in-laws; mention what movie you actually want to watch; and decide how you’d like to eat your eggs, Howes said. The latter comes from the movie “Runaway Bride.” Julia Roberts’s character would eat whatever eggs her fiancé (at the moment) liked. (Finally, she figures out her personal preference and figures out herself.)
“I think that so much about authentic living and being our true selves is giving ourselves permission,” Osborn said. It’s giving ourselves permission to quiet the “shoulds,” which stem from others, and act on our own beliefs and values. “It’s an evolving process that takes time and self-exploration, but also one that is fiercely rewarding.”