The Cost of Being Yourself

“Be yourself!” is one of the most unobjectionable phrases written in rainbow or bubbly, lime green on vinyl stickers everywhere. I’m not sure why it’s such a popular adage since I’ve never met anyone who would argue the point. But I want to take some time here to press into it a little bit and explore where it goes right, where it goes wrong, and the costs that might be involved in the process.

First of all, there is plenty not to admire about any person on the planet honest enough to name their flaws. I don’t think “be yourself” should be a license to celebrate unsavory characteristics like having a sense of entitlement, being deceptive, or having a problem with road rage. This is to say nothing of those darker, more disordered traits some people have that lead to criminal behavior, addictions, or abuse against others. No way. In these situations, for the love of all that’s holy, please do NOT “be yourself”! (We can insert some details here of course, about radical acceptance and then a purposeful desire to change, but that’s getting into the weeds and bumper stickers have no attention span for weeds.) Instead, hope that you have someone who knows you and loves you enough to gently encourage you to correct yourself and maybe go to therapy. That’s love. 

Now to explore the nuance: What about when your behavior is not egregiously wrong or disordered but simply behavior that makes people raise eyebrows? Choices that others question, don’t understand, or flat out disagree with? This could be something as simple as what music you listen to or how you do your hair all the way up to who you decide to marry or what religion you decide to practice. Humans have all sorts of opinions and convictions and that’s part of the beauty of this world. But many times, these opinions turn into proclamations. Or they become part of the script that others decide you need to live by. Sadly, I learned this the hard way in my very early twenties when I was certain about everything under the sun and let everyone know just what I thought about their choices. Many bridges were burned this way and it took quite a while before some reconnections were made with me on my island of smugness. Some never recovered. One could say I was authentically myself (even if seriously naive), but I was also authentically obnoxious in wanting others to live in the ‘boxes of self’ I had set out for them. I thought I knew more than they did about who they needed to be.

“Be yourself” is a one-person clarion call. It is not an invitation to define others’ selves. This does not mean we need to denounce our convictions, become relativists, or ignore our internal disagreements. But being an emotionally mature person means we allow space between the other and the self. Not just physical and emotional space. But the space of mystery. We don’t know their story. We don’t know the experiences or understandings that have shaped their thinking. We don’t get to excavate their memories or explore their hearts unsolicited. We only know the fraction of others that they allow us to see, and frankly, even this is only processed at the psychological capacity we each have (a whole separate topic). So, if we want to be people who are genuinely dedicated to reason and wisdom, compassion is the safest and surest disposition. 

Being who you are can go awry in another way as well. Some people have spent so much of their lives chasing the applause and approval of others, that they aren’t even sure how to be themselves. And indeed, it might be very uncomfortable for them if they were to begin doing so. This is where so many mental health issues live. People pleasing. Anxiety. Depression. Enmeshment. Poor boundaries. Shame. All of these and more can be elements of a self-betrayal. It’s not the scope of this little article to go into how this plays out in every individual case— part of the work done in therapy is to identify one’s core values and then learn to live them in a healthy, life-giving way. When you begin changing, and coming home to yourself, when you begin speaking up and cultivating healthy boundaries and refuse to engage in self-betrayal, you will be learning to “be yourself”… and this may come at a heavy cost.

You may lose your friends or family. You may lose your reputation. You may lose your job. And on. It can be a lonely and painful purging. But, like any red hot fire, it can be purifying as well. It can help shape and firm up your sense of self and lead to more self-respect overall. It can burn away the voice of shame and inner criticism and it can reveal who you truly are and who your people are. You may no longer fit into the version of you they wanted you to be. But you will fit exactly into the version of you that can bring healing, growth and confidence. The path to being yourself may be long, narrow, and painful. It is often a lifetime’s work and for those who want to do it well, it requires a commitment to radical honesty, self-awareness and healthy humility. But this path is the one that ultimately results in a vast inner-freedom that can be achieved in no other way.