Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
Be yourself. That is certainly some sound advice. No doubt we have all been soothed with such sage wisdom at various critical points throughout our lives. Often preceded by the mother of all red flags, ‘just‘. As if anything in life was ever just that easy. Nervous about an upcoming job interview? Just be yourself. First date jitters? Just-be-yourself. Facing an existential life crisis? JuSt Be YoUrSeLf. It is a phrase so ingrained in the modern psyche, so lorded by parents and teachers and advice ‘gurus’, so often regurgitated by the media and its many faces, that we must surely be forgiven for considering such ‘advice’ as anything other than useless.
The truth is that the touting of ‘just be yourself’ is the antithesis of advice, hollow, devoid of substance and banal. It is the lion in sheep’s clothing of the advice giving world, the cuckoo in the nest, the fly in the ointment. Up there with other such contrived nothings as ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea’ and ‘everything happen’s for a reason.’ Such advice is not only meaningless, it is in fact dangerously dismissive.
Allow me to paint a familiar scene. Tomorrow is your first day in a new job. You are understandably, nervous. Such a multitude of unknown variables is enough to give even the most confident amongst us reason to pause. What will my new coworkers think of me? What if I can’t handle the work? What if my sweat inducing stress dream last night was actually a premonition and I do in fact, somewhat inexplicably, forget to put clothes on that morning and walk into my new employment bare-ass naked? Such rational (and some irrational) fears plague all of us when staring into the face of the dark unknown, whether we like to admit it or not.
How does one deal with such insecurities? why not fall back on yet another well worn piece of comforting fluff, ‘just talk about it.’ The simple logic of it is irrefutable, talk about your concerns, your inner turmoils with a fellow human being, perhaps a loved one or a close friend, and surely you will be soothed with intimate tales of similar situations, inspired by the insightful musings of the more experienced or even invited into the comforting temple of mutual human experience. Instead you are greeted with the slammed face in your door, the middle finger of indifference which is ‘Just be yourself.’ Sound advice. So simple. So elegant. In need of just one simple follow up question…What the fuck does that even mean?
The spider web of hidden implications behind those three simple words are so numerous and complex that it can surely invite little else than terrified inertia. Who I am I? What aspect of myself should I be? What if I don’t like who I am right now? The truth is there no such thing as an intrinsic ‘self.’ We are irreducible and unknowable creatures, altered and filtered from one social situation to the next, constantly adapting and evolving dependent upon context and requirements. The ‘self’ I am with my friends is unlikely to win me any fans in the boardroom. The self I am with my family may well be inappropriate with the stranger I meet on the street. The self I was yesterday is not necessarily the self I want to be tomorrow.
How much easier it would be if we lived in the black and white world of these uselessly touted idioms. There would be no need to mourn the break up of a four year relationship when there are ‘plenty more fish in the see,’ no need to consider the wide reaching implications of our actions when ‘everything happens for a reason,’ no need to reflect upon how I may be perceived by others when you need to ‘just be yourself.’
The truth is we do need to talk more. About everything. In a world more connected than it has ever been before, so many of us feel such a strong disconnect with our fellow humans which we struggle to understand. Though there is no ‘just‘ about it. We need to talk yes, but we also need to contemplate the value of our interactions. Instead of hiding behind the comforting nothings that we have all gown up with, meaningless collections of empty words which serve only to hold each other at arms length, let us break the mould. Let us break down the walls of social niceties, take risks, be vulnerable. Let us all slowly undress one another and state not ‘just be yourself’, but rather ask, ‘what does it mean to be yourself?’