I recently saw someone wearing a T-shirt with the words “just be yourself” sprawled across the front. Well intentioned I suppose, but it was missing the crucial point. Because to just be yourself, you must first really know yourself. For, how can you really be something if you aren’t really clear about what it is? Authenticity, a bit like ‘happiness’, is something that everyone wants, but few find. What’s more, authenticity, happiness and self-confidence — like beauty, goodness and truth — are flowers from the same tree. And that tree is none other than the tree of self-knowledge.
The reality is that we cannot simply command ourselves to ‘be authentic’. It’s the equivalent of asking someone to just be confident or to snap out of feeling depressed. What you get is fragile bravado instead of genuine confidence, or a put-on smile that masks inner pain. The error lies in trying to force something that cannot be forced, rather than attending to the conditions — both supportive and obstructive — behind it.
A second problem is that being authentic can so easily be reduced to a mimetic idea, like ‘being successful’ or ‘being happy’. Something that you think you should be doing because everyone else is. ‘How to be authentic’ thus becomes the BS self-help version of ‘how to get rich quick’. The problem is that there can be no step-by-step guide to either. So, we can basically ignore the self-help section at the airport bookstore.
Just be yourself — the mundane case
There is interestingly a mundane sense in which the instruction to just be yourself is broadly valid. This is worth noting, if only to clarify what we are not talking about. Let’s think of a typical situation. You appear uncomfortable when meeting a new group of people and the host — your friend — says “don’t worry just be yourself”. This is not a bad instruction because you have unconsciously added something extra — anxiety and tension — to your general way of being. And because your friend knows how you usually behave, they are in a good position to provide a little reassurance that may help you relax.
But, what we are talking about here is not being yourself in the mundane sense. It’s not about surface behaviour — momentary deviations from your general way of being. What we are talking about is your general way of being itself. It’s you the person, the individual, your hopes and dreams. It’s your fundamental relationship to yourself that is in question here. Who are you, really? To be authentic — to just be yourself — we must first enquire into the nature of self.
What is it that we call the self?
We are each a biological organism with basic physical needs. Yet, this is less than half of the picture, for we are also the most social animal on the planet. And that brings with it all sorts of complex feelings of wanting to belong and be validated by others. Our upbringings inevitably then involve becoming ‘well-adjusted’ members of some community or the other. This requires learning basic human decencies and adopting cultural norms about what-to and what-not-to do.
What we call “the self” is not just a physical body then, but an entire physio-psychological system that is heavily conditioned by the social environment. And this conditioning affects not only how we relate to the outside world, but how we relate to ourselves.
The problem arises when we are unaware of just how much of what we think of as ‘the self’ is really a patchwork of arbitrary conditioned beliefs and behaviour patterns that we have paid little attention to. Consider that if you were born in a different place, many of your goals, beliefs and behaviours might be very different. In short, you would probably be a very different self.
Furthermore, what we have in mind when we talk about the self as “I am so and so” is usually a highly partial narrative of whom we think we should be. One that is born out of our complex conditioned experience from the day we were born. That is why I find the phrase “just be yourself” so troublesome. For, who or what is this “yourself” that we speak of? And if the original notion of the self is unclear — everything that relies on it will likely bring only confusion.
To just be yourself, you must know yourself
The crucial point here then is that so many of our actions in life are unconsciously driven by the need to uphold hidden conditioned beliefs, without us being aware that this is indeed what is going on! So, in what sense can you ‘just be yourself’ if you are in the dark?
To be yourself, you must first know yourself. And, to know yourself is to become aware of your psychological reality. It’s to become awake to the different conscious and unconscious drivers behind your actions. It’s about noticing and then questioning your deepest beliefs and dearest life goals.
Are they truly what you want to do, or are they a product of conditioning — something you believe you ought to do? Is it possible to disentangle what you really want, from what you have been conditioned to want?
Can action even be authentic?
The difference between unconsciously living out scripts handed to you versus choosing from a place of self-knowledge, goes to the very heart of authenticity. Because this creates the fertile space for engaging in activities for their own sake, rather than for any external rewards such as money, status or social validation.
The idea of ‘action for its own sake’ is easily understood when you notice just how often you do it in everyday life already. Think of spending time with loved ones, or enjoying a walk in nature, for example. No one is paying you to do these things and you are not seeking any status achievements through them either (hopefully). They are just things that you find meaningful and so you do them, without hesitation or fuss.
What we find in these everyday acts is a certain quality of experience — they are enjoyable, unselfconscious and done for their own sake. And this quality of experience can be generalised to all activities of life, even to things that may appear hard and difficult to the outside observer. Indeed, this is what the sportsperson or artist that loves their craft might speak of in relation to their ‘work’. It’s spontaneous action that springs naturally from a place of deep interest and curiosity, whatever the level of difficulty. And, this is what authentic action is.
What is life?
The principle of doing things for their own sake offers us a lens with which to understand the self. The usual approach is to have some narrative about who we are. “I am such and such a person, with such and such life experience and credentials” blah blah. This approach is reflective and backward looking (for descriptive thought is reflective by definition).
But, we can also consider the self as a continuous stream — a series of actions you just do for their own sake — rather than as being defined by some partial narrative. To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak of ourselves as “such and such” for practical and logistical matters — that would be silly. What I am saying is that we should be very aware of how easily we cling to these descriptions of who we are. Of how easily we become trapped by our own self-images.
Self-knowledge allows you to just be yourself
The more you know yourself and attune to what really interests you , the closer you get to filling your life with work, leisure and people that you connect to on a fundamental level. Because you know that these are things you want to engage in for their own sake! We are also in a position now to see how confidence and happiness are closely related to authenticity. And how they all spring from self-knowledge.
- It’s self-knowledge that allows us to become aware of our deeper beliefs and our conditioning. Of how we might be unconsciously living out scripts handed to us.
- This in turn paves the way for letting go of scripts about how you should live, allowing you to connect with what deeply interests you. These are the activities which you do for their own sake with unselfconscious engagement.
- And if you find such a level of connection, is this not also joyous? And, is such a connected, joyous state not also a confident one? Because there is little room for unhelpful self-criticism and worry about how well you are measuring against others.
You automatically find confidence because you are joyfully connected to the act — you just get on with it — you are one with it! Thus, your self becomes a flow of action done for its own sake. You will just be yourself without ever needing to try.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.