How To Be Yourself
A brief psychological guide
The internet is inundated with career suggestions, and few are as popular as the idea that we should “just be ourselves”, or bring our “authentic”, “true”, or “whole self” to work (which, at least in the past 1.5 years, has required far less commuting time, unless you are still forced to visit the office).
While intuitively appealing, this advice is more complex than it seems. Furthermore, robust scientific evidence suggests that there are big disadvantages to behaving in spontaneous, unfiltered, and disinhibited ways, especially during a job interview or client presentation. This is why, as the great Erving Goffman documented, the most successful and effective people are rarely themselves, in the sense that they pay a great deal to what other people think of them, and make a great effort to adjust their behaviors in order to conform to others’ expectations, not to mention the dominant social or cultural etiquette. That said, if, for some odd reason, such as entitlement, antisocial tendencies, or an oversized ego, you are still determined to be yourself, there are five psychological tips you may wish to consider:
(1) Find out who you actually are: OK, so you want to be yourself… but how will you realize if you succeed? Although the question seems obvious, it is rarely asked. Fortunately, psychology provides two main approaches for evaluating who you really are. The intra-psychical tradition tells us to “look inside” or within us, taking a deep dive into the darkest corners of our character and consciousness, like a sort of archeologist looking for the origins of our soul. Even when you get professional help, this process can take a long time, as many years of psychotherapy, and you may not like what you discover (e.g., you are a neurotic narcissist, your parents didn’t really love you, and you are in love with your high-school teacher). Alternatively, you may check into an Indian Ashram as the Beatles and Mia Farrow did in the 60s, or opt for the modern hipster equivalent: checking into an Ayahuascain retreat in Costa Rica for some some Psilocybin Healing treatment. Alternatively, the inter-psychical tradition encourages us to look outside, to crowdsource and internalize other people’s views of us. According to this view, the best way to find out who we are is to ask others, like with well-designed feedback interventions and 360-degree assessments. Allegedly, when David Bowie was asked which of his many artistic personas actually represented his real self, he noted that he is only the person the greatest number of people think he is (he was obviously a big fan of 360s). Contrary to popular belief, the inter-psychical approach is far more likely to reveal our real self than the intra-psychical is. Indeed, decades of psychological research show that our self-views are generally inaccurate, distorted, and optimistically deluded, whereas other people’s views of us are a strong predictor of how we behave in the future. The best way to look at ourselves, then, is through other people’s reflection.
(2) Abandon any hopes of complexity: One of the factors that drives other people to see us as authentic is consistency. That is, the more predictable, repetitive, and monotonous we are in our behavior, the more likely others are to assume we are authentic, since authenticity is largely a function of the closeness between what we say and what we do, and what we do in different situations. However, unlike fish or squirrel, humans are complex creatures, in that we don’t bring the same aspects of our self to different situations or settings, mostly because we have the sensitivity and motivation to adapt to different circumstances and express different sides of our character and identity depending on who we are with, where we are, and what is expected from us. For example, if I asked different friends of yours to describe you, and their descriptions highlighted different sides of you; or if your romantic partner or spouse saw a different version of you than your boss or colleagues, that is because there is more than one side to your character, so that the “whole” or “authentic” version of you would need to be stitched together, joining the different fragments of you that you express or display in different areas of life. Therefore, the only way to appear real to everyone else is to abandon any hopes of complexity and behave in the same boring and repetitive ways across different settings, which implies becoming more authentic, and probably more boring, too.
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(3) Stop caring about what others think of you: At work, and in any social situation, we are under pressure to manage impressions, to put on a show, and conform to a dominant social etiquette. But if you really don’t care about what others think of you, then go on, just behave in whatever way you feel like, and show them the uncensored and unfiltered version of you. Unfortunately, this will likely limit your career success (see point 4 below), unless you are endowed with status, power, or privilege (see point 5 below), though this is questionable. We all know plenty of examples where people show us their unrepressed self – e.g., drunken Christmas parties, overconfident acts of impulsive, reckless, or regrettable behaviors, and toxic or unethical behaviors at work or in any other social interaction – and very few where being disinterested in other people’s opinions increases your performance, success, or social status. Note that even social disruptors pay a great deal of attention to what others think of them, which is why they are so methodical and meticulous in their pursuit of non-conformity and unconventional behaviors.
(4) Stop caring about your career success: Most people are under a great deal of pressure to conform to social norms, especially when they are good at what they do. This is why it is hard to think of examples of very famous and successful people who are just themselves: for example, name one effective leader, or successful politician, who is authentic, in the sense of behaving in a genuine, spontaneous, and unfiltered way (as they perhaps do in the privacy of their home). In contrast, we can all think of unsuccessful people who are “just themselves”: talented people who, despite their skills, can’t be bothered to conform to any standards or etiquette, so they are utterly disinterested in making any efforts to impress others, showcase their talents, or suck up to people. Admirable? Yes. Uncompromising? Yes. Best known recipe to avoid succeeding in your career? Yes, especially when you have talent.
(5) Be born to privilege: The final tip is one you cannot really influence, but is nonetheless critical, arguably more than points 1-to-4. Being born rich, white, male, attractive, or into any form of privilege, will of course increase your allowance to “just be yourself”. So much so, that we should stop encouraging anyone who isn’t born to privilege to indulge in their desire to just be themselves, free themselves of any social or cultural inhibitions, or show us who they really are. To be sure, even those who enjoy an excess of status and privilege will generally be more ethical when they manage to tame or inhibit their authentic self, but there’s no questioning the fact that in order to get away with being yourself, you will need to have a great line of credit, which is called privilege. If you want to look for moral and prosocial behavior, you are more likely to find it in those who lack power, status, or privilege, than those who don’t – same goes for authenticity.
Now onto the good news: if you have given up on your desire to be yourself, or bring your authentic or true self to work, nobody actually cares. In general, people want to believe that you are somewhat predictable, real, and trustworthy – and what they desire most is to see the good side in you, as in the civil, prosocial, and unselfish behaviors most humans are capable (though not often willing) to express. So, don’t be a fraud, avoid deceiving or cheating others, and make a big effort to be the best version of you. This will generally require a great deal of work, but you owe it to others. Above all, remember that the “real you” – in the sense of the unfiltered, uncensored, and uninhibited version of your persona – is someone that perhaps five people in the world have learned to love, or at least tolerate. And even they are likely to have some reservations about your authentic self.