How to truly and authentically be yourself
The story of Oscar Wilde did not end happily. Once lauded on the London stage and feted by society, he suffered the fate of languishing in jail after publicly declaring his love for a man — which was, at that time, deemed a crime. His tumble from grace was irrevocable and he ended up impoverished in Paris, dying at only 46. Being himself cost him everything including his life but living a lie had become unbearable. He could not deny his truth.
Support and acceptance from those around is the pathway to freedom for many who feel trapped inside of themselves.
This story is not an unfamiliar one for many people, even in this day and age. The anguish of knowing who you are but pretending to be something else for fear of scorn or rejection can end in tragedy. Whether it is society or on a much smaller scale with friends or family, revealing your true self can be the toughest act you can do. Ironically, it can be hardest with those you love.
It takes courage to live your true life, especially when it comes to identity, sexuality or following cultural norms. How often do we see young people forced into studies or careers, trying to live up to parental expectations only to break out later or, worse still, suffering in silence interminably? Support and acceptance from those around is the pathway to freedom for many who feel trapped inside themselves. And, like Wilde, it takes courage to be yourself.
The great French existential writer and commentator Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” Living up to expectations or conforming to societal norms can affect any chance of happiness when you compromise who you are.
We are beholden to what others think of us and we act accordingly. Oftentimes we revert to taking safe or soft options — we compromise our values or forgo principles that would otherwise govern how we would conduct our lives. Moreover, we step back from taking risks and abandon our sense of purpose. As a result we fail to act on our own intuition, deferring to the will or way of others.
There is a lovely saying, “Dance like nobody is watching.” So why not imagine living your life like no one is judging?
At a broader level, true self-expression doesn’t have to be about something as specific or quantifiable as sexuality; it could merely be about fitting in or belonging. From as early as we can remember we crave acceptance. In her famous TED speech The Power of Vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown discusses connection, asserting that we are in fact hardwired to connect with others. This is where we find meaning and purpose. We feel the need to be seen and validated and at times we compromise who we really are to gain that connection.
From the moment children develop a keen sense of self-awareness they begin to modify their behaviour to placate and please others. In the playground we see children observing others and changing their own predilections in order to fit in. Watch that once-sweet kid pick up all the affectations of being cool in order to be accepted by their peers.
Living your life on your terms means you will never be dogged by shame, self-reproach and fear. You may still have your difficult days but you will be buoyed by self-compassion and self-acceptance.
Indeed, look at their parents who modelled this behaviour because they too crave acceptance. Parents inadvertently urge their children to behave in a certain way or to participate in activities or sports they deem appropriate or advantageous in order to be accepted by others. Whether consciously or unwittingly, they curb, direct and even subvert their kids’ essential natures. Sometimes this has dire or unintended consequences if the child pushes back or cannot cope.
Even in the so-called rebellious years, while adolescents are preoccupied with differentiating from their parents, they desperately seek acceptance from their peers. Teenagers struggle to find their herd group. From their hairstyles to the clothes they wear, the music they listen to or what social or sporting group they are inducted into, they crave acceptance and fear social isolation. Surfie, skater or even a nerd, each tribe denotes belonging. To be ostracised or to not find your clique can be social death.
Indeed, many school-aged children starting from as young as kindergarten age cite chronic and tormenting bullying because they stand out or don’t fit in. Brown talks about the shame that comes from disconnection and not feeling accepted. This leads to feelings of unworthiness and we learn to disappear into ourselves.
Many of us, despite age, gender or social stratification, conform for fear of being left out. Drinking, for instance, still plays a big role in social acceptance. It is easier to get drunk than be thought of as a killjoy.
We constantly feel under the critical gaze of others. So many of us live the life we think we should rather than the life we want to live. It’s not easy to be yourself when you fear judgment, disapproval and being left on the outer.
Appearance is everything
Contemporary philosopher and author Alain de Botton declared that “‘just be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people”. And the reason is the backlash. In fact, not being yourself shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of as the cost can be high and for many of us it’s a price not worth paying. So we persist in living a lie or simply not showing up or speaking for ourselves.
Keeping up appearances can be a full-time job — and often a thankless one as you derive very little happiness from this meaningless pursuit. The truth of our lives usually lies behind closed doors and even then the truth of who we are is subverted as we fail to show up to our partners, to our friends and most painfully to ourselves.
Research shows that high levels of chronic anxiety are in part due to the fact that people are not leading their true lives. They feel under pressure to be more, to look better, to be liked and to conform to ideas of what it is to be successful and happy. There is no respite, especially with social media, which constantly holds a false mirror to our faces, chastising us for not being more as we scroll through feeds viewing other people seemingly having wonderful lives.
Many who seek help from therapists find the only time they can let go and be themselves is when they are in the safe and confidential counselling space.
In couples therapy, a breakthrough happens when one or both finally give(s) in to the truth, exposing their vulnerabilities. In this instance it may be the first time the spouse learns what is truly upsetting their partner. It may be that over the years they have become too scared or shy to express their true feelings; perhaps there is stored-up resentment or an inability to ask for what they want sexually or emotionally.
Revelations of self that occur in this context are entirely a liberating experience as that person feels seen, sometimes for the first time. The greatest relief comes when you no longer feel self-conscious at the prospect of dropping your guard and revealing yourself. It is like exhaling after holding your breath for too long.
Your right to be
In life, we may not feel that we are being seen but often we don’t allow ourselves to be seen for fear of reprisals. So how do you be yourself?
You simply give yourself permission to do so. Easy!
Well, it isn’t easy, of course. For many of us, our goal should be to find the courage to be ourselves where we can say we love someone without shame or fear of rejection. Or if asked, “Are you OK?” we can honestly respond by saying, “Actually, things have been tough for me lately.”
When you can say to yourself and to those who care about you how you really feel, then you are free. This is the power of embracing your vulnerability. You are actually saying to yourself, “I’m free to be me.”
Life should be about getting to know yourself and then being yourself. We would do this naturally but along the way we inevitably get blindsided by a hurtful comment, succumb to expectations or seek to compare ourselves with others. But we can correct this and it’s possible to return to ourselves.
One of the most overused words of the 21st century is authentic. It has almost lost its meaning but essentially it does speak of the need for people to accept and be themselves. Brown defines it in a way that is sympathetic to the human condition: “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.”
Ironically, we are instinctively attracted to the truth and to people whom we deem as real. The fact that we hide from the truth is actually counterintuitive. All we need to remember is that we must belong to ourselves before we can belong to anyone else. We mustn’t hide from who we are but instead should practise being kind and nonjudgmental with ourselves. With an open heart and self-acceptance we can then take the next crucial step: to consciously choose those people who allow us to be ourselves and who even celebrate it with us.
If we can learn to accept our vulnerability, our uniqueness and to know that what we feel and think matters, then we can achieve self-belonging. There is no more relief than when you get to tell your truth as you get to revel in being yourself. And, for the most part, when you do show up to those you love and trust, you are welcomed with open arms.
Living your life on your terms where you don’t strive to live your “best” life — one laced with the burden of expectation — but rather encouraged to live your true life, means you will never be dogged by shame, self-reproach and fear. You may still have your difficult days but you will be buoyed by self-compassion and self-acceptance.
I see me
In James Cameron’s epic film Avatar the native people, upon greeting each other, place their hands on the chest of the other person, look into their eyes and say, “I see you.”
This simple statement has nothing to do with the literal and everything to do with what is unseen. In that comment, one person is acknowledging the validity and worthiness of the other and saying they are being seen for who they are, not as the other wants to see them. This is a statement of true regard and acceptance. It also frees that person to truly be who they are.
Far away from that fictional Pandora, wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was how we regarded each other in our world?
Moreover, what if we could say the words “I see me” as a form of unashamed self-acknowledgment? In doing so, we could genuinely embrace the person we are and give ourselves permission each and every day to be our true selves even with all our hopes and our fears; our successes and our vulnerabilities; our disappointments and our passions.
Imagine the conversations we could have with those around us, knowing that we are in full possession of our self-worth. We could come at life with a sense of purpose and joy knowing that while “the other”, as Sartre suggested, might reject or scorn us, we will never abandon who we really are.
Our worthy writer Wilde, who stayed true to himself to the very end, is immortalised by his very own words that resonate today because therein lies the truth: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
Be yourself, because no one can do it better than you.