If someone were to say this to you, what do you think they mean?
I don’t know where the idea came from, but this concept jumped in my head months ago and never left. The question was posed, open-ended but persistent.
I posted an initial thought on Facebook and got some cool replies. I mused over the idea that “yourself” can be (over)simplified down into a set of “traits” that are on a spectrum of good vs bad. You are smart (good), you like spaghetti (neutral), and you are rude sometimes (bad). Most people are a bell curve. Some bad traits, a bunch of neutral, and some good.
That’s it. That’s you. How does that feel?
In that case, I suggested that by saying “be yourself” to someone, you might be encouraging them to display more of the neutral traits they may be downplaying or hiding. But, it doesn’t apply to the good or the bad.
The good goes without saying. You’d never encourage someone to be good, because they’re probably doing it anyways. Society values those traits, so there is no reason for them to be hiding them.
The bad, on the other hand, would simply never be encouraged. “Be more rude!” said no one ever.
Instead, they’re saying to embrace your uniqueness. Your quirks. You love Harry Potter. You get really excited about birds. I dunno. Harmless but potentially weird shit. Fuck it. Go ham.
The context also matters. You can imagine someone saying it before a job interview or a first date. In those contexts, it may be a positive comment because maybe you’d try to hide some of the more unique/weird stuff but they’re saying “Don’t!”
“It’s charming. It’s cool. They’ll like you.” The real you.
In other contexts, “be yourself” could be more negative. Maybe you’re being an asshole for some reason, and they’re telling you to chill. (This has a silver lining of some positivity because they’re saying that your true self is not an asshole. But the comment itself might be a reprimand.)
So why do we fake it?
In Covering, a book I recently read by Kenji Yoshino (it was heartbreaking and incredible), Yoshino cites psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott and his distinction between the “True Self” and the “False Self”, saying:
The True Self is the self that gives an individual the feeling of being real, which is ‘more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.’ The True Self is associated with human spontaneity and authenticity: ‘Only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real.’ The False Self, in contrast, gives an individual a sense of being unreal, a sense of futility. It mediates the relationship between the True Self and the world.
What I love about Winnicott is that he does not demonize the False Self. To the contrary, Winnicott believes the False Self protects the True Self: ‘The False Self has one positive and very important function: to hide the True Self, which it does by compliance with environmental demands.’ Like a king castling behind a rook in chess, the more valuable but less powerful piece retreats behind the less valuable but more powerful one. Because the relationship between the True Self and the False Self is symbiotic, Winnicott believes both selves will exist even in the healthy individual.Single quotes are direct quotes from Winnicott, the rest is Yoshino.
(There are a few other readings I’ve done recently that touch on the subject, where I’ll add here until I potentially weave them into the story later.
- One of which is the 6 paragraphs starting with “What makes you you?” from this article in Wired.
- Another is a quote from the classic Lion King that a friend reminded me of when we spoke on this subject. It’s the one where Simba speaks to his late father’s vision, who stresses “Remember who you are.”
Back to the story.)
Hiding your passion for Harry Potter is much different than Yoshino’s subject, which is your sexual orientation, race, or other traits or behaviors that are but should not be demonized. But we can draw parallels, if to a less dire degree.
The gist is that the environments that everyone lives in demand things from them, and people react by encouraging or suppressing different traits. Interestingly, this means that these traits have always been there (well, maybe not always, but I’ll address that later), they’re just hidden sometimes.
In any given day, you may find yourself in one, two, maybe more of these environments. I think about going into work (back when that was a thing!), where I’d act a bit more “professionally” then I would around, say, my most irreverent (and wonderful!) friends.
In that case, what is suppressed vs encouraged is pretty obvious. I have been known to make some crude jokes and discuss some inappropriate things at times. This is (seems to be?) an authentic part of me, but it is suppressed at work. Is the extra professionalism wrong or false? Or, instead, is the irreverence inappropriate? Neither seem so.
This gets to one takeaway I’m considering. Not “being yourself” isn’t necessarily bad if you are in favor of the changes. It’s when you’re not, when you wish you could be yourself, that it is bad.
While Winnicott/Yoshino did not demonize the use of the “False Self”, surely they would have preferred that it not be needed, especially in the potentially life-threatening cases of “yourself” being homosexual in sometimes-violently-homophobic America.
Maybe a sign of an authentic and fulfilling life is one where you do not exist in too many environments that ask you to change your behavior to accommodate the people around you.
So much more to think about/discuss on the subject. To be continued!