Growing up in the 90s, when celebrity autographs were coveted, signatures were often accompanied by the short platitude, “Be yourself!” (I preferred this to the dreaded “Keep smiling!”). I saw that everywhere – just be yourself. I never thought much about it. It was just something that people said. I was busy being myself anyway. I didn’t have any doubts. I had a pretty good idea of who I was. Why would I want to be anyone else? At that age, all the tools for any conscious self-analysis or examination were (thankfully) out of my reach.
I think the advice is rooted in good intentions – don’t be pretentious, don’t try to be someone you’re not, be comfortable in your own skin. Be honest, be authentic, take pride in being you. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense and it’s not a bad thing for young people to be reminded of often. But as adults, when our minds start becoming capable of conjuring up all sorts of narratives, this advice gets harder to implement.
I’m not sure I want to be myself
In my early thirties, I had a period of serious self-loathing (as I believe we all should, at some point in our lives, as a rite of passage). I revisited those words: “be yourself” and started to think I didn’t really know what it meant. How could I be myself – or why should I want to – when I didn’t really like myself anymore? My response to “Be yourself” may well have been “You don’t want to see that.”
I went to a therapist with a carefully-put together list of my flaws. I had bullet points and all. Waving it at her (I want you to picture that, but in reality I was screensharing) I told her I didn’t like any of these aspects of myself and how could I eliminate them please? She asked if I could consider accepting a small percentage of those flaws. I flatly refused: absolutely not! I was seeking counselling to be transformed into a New and Improved Ramya, not to stay put in the same place. I wanted to change, like caterpillar to butterfly, into the ideal version of me that I’d grown up aspiring to be. I didn’t want to “just be myself”, no thank you.
In hindsight I see how ridiculous I must have sounded. It’s only after many sessions of therapy that I was able to realize that a key step to moving forward was to first embrace who I was – ugly bits and all.
When I was a teenager, I called a friend one afternoon and whined, “I’m so bored sitting here in my room by myself!” He retorted, laughing: “If you’re so bored of yourself, imagine how others must feel around you!” In retrospect, it perhaps was a cruel thing to say but back then I saw a great deal of humour in it.
So when I found that I wasn’t too fond of myself in my thirties, I knew I had to find ways to start liking myself if I wanted to be a socially-accepted person (don’t we all crave social acceptance even as we rebel against it)? With the help of my therapist, I started to accept parts of myself that I really disliked, I told myself it was okay to be so flawed and imperfect. Maybe being myself meant choosing to keep the problematic parts of me that I’d much rather get removed. Perhaps I made progress in getting closer to being me.
I’m constantly changing
I think the “be yourself” advice is problematic because the “yourself” is so variable. We keep changing, evolving. I’ve often felt like I’ve changed so quickly and quietly that the actual me is way ahead of where I think I am. I’m left behind, trying to catch up with the person I’ve already become.
Sometimes I react in ways that seem completely out of character for me. I do something that surprises me: and I think wow, I didn’t know I was capable of this, or “when did I become this person”? When I react to a situation differently than the old me would have, and it takes me time to acknowledge it.
How can you be yourself when your self is so complex, layered, so far beyond the capacity of our own understanding?
Perhaps I struggle with being myself because I’m not who I thought I would become. I saw myself as someone who would work with my hands, have a huge impact, teach kids, bring about real and tangible change in society. But in reality I hide behind a screen, resist change and have seem to have grown apathetic to society. My self-image differs vastly from the reality of who I am. I’m constantly trying to adjust my real self to my ideal self, calibrate myself to a higher standard. I learned about the concept of “congruence” from my therapist: and I think there is very little overlap between my ideal self and my current self. So if I were to create more of an overlap, perhaps I’d have a clearer definition of a “myself” that I’d like to be?
Also, how we perceive ourselves matters a lot in the process of being ourselves. The narratives that we build of ourselves are often false. I have always thought of myself as impatient, impulsive and rebellious. Yet my coworkers have constantly called me calm, measured and composed, compliments that are often met with amused disbelief when I quote them to friends. So am I a calm, collected person or a hot-headed, impulsive person? I guess the answer is “it depends”. So maybe we should say “Be yourself… but conditions apply.”
I am so many people
At any given time, I am multiple people. So when someone asks me to be myself, I wonder: which myself do they want me to be?
Reminds me of these CSNY lyrics:
I’d like to meet you
who do you see?
Introduce yourself to whichever of me is nearby
I’ve always felt like many people rolled into one. I’m shape-shifting, fluid, constantly changing. The boundaries of my identity are dependent on several things – and frequently get rubbed off and redrawn.
I can be whoever I want to be, and the range of options is overwhelming.
I think of myself as many moving parts, not always fitting together, each individual piece often jostling for space. I never seem to be one whole harmonious person.
The other day, when I was job-hunting, when I noticed the words “Distributed team”. I think that describes exactly who I am. I’ve been a walky-talky-one-person distributed team all my life: parts of me in different parts of the world, having their own conversations.
I think I can’t also be myself in isolation as I’ve spent a lot of my life distributing myself among people. All my friends know a different side of me but nobody knows the entirety of me. It would take everyone to come together to build a jigsaw of me, and I’m sure there would be missing pieces: the strangers I’ve confessed random things to or stories that nobody has witnessed. Being myself would need all of these different fragments coming together.
Finding myself, becoming whole
What does it feel like to be a wholly integrated person with little conflict? I hope to find out some day.
The times when I’ve felt like most myself is when I’m escaping. Escaping is what I do best. I escape into the piano, I escape into comics, I escape into these very words that I’m writing. When I bury myself in something I like doing, I feel like I’m unearthing myself. When I write a song or create a comic, I feel like all parts of me come together in one harmonious coexistence. Sometimes, that escape is in observation. I’m at peace when I’m birdwatching or sitting on a hill, watching the sunset. Sometimes, that escape is movement. When I’m on a train, sitting at the window seat, all the parts of me feel neatly aligned and contained. My gaze is on the moving scenes outside the window, my brain makes shapes of trees and fields, my heart is in a nice regular rhythm, my head nods to the beat of the clickety-clacks.
Sometimes, that escape is a crowd. I feel like myself in the oddest of places. I spent NYE a few years ago in Nottingham, with my partner and a bunch of strangers in the town square. When the clock struck midnight, I sang Auld Lang Syne at the top of my voice, words that had seemed so far-fetched when I’d learnt them in an old songbook in India. I felt like I could not be more me if I tried. I feel like me when I walk in busy market streets in India, watching hawkers and chai-stall owners and aunties selling jasmine. I feel like me when I’m surrounded by the comfort of old friends, but also when I am protected by the shield that anonymity offers.
Sometimes, that escape is simply doing nothing, sitting in emptiness. I feel like myself when I’m lost, when I’m blank, when I surrender to silence. I find relief in these zones of escape. I find comfort in knowing that I can “just be myself” by escaping, avoiding, throwing myself into an alternative reality. It’s liberating to have an out, it’s exhilarating to feel whole.
Isn’t it ironic that to be myself I have to lose myself? Perhaps that’s the only way I know to be authentic, honest and vulnerable. Perhaps escaping is absolutely essential for me to “just be myself”.