Do you know how to "be yourself?" The question that will help you be authentic even when the stakes are high
“Just be yourself!”
“Don’t worry about what other people think of you!”
“Dance like nobody’s watching!”
“To thine own self be true.”
We consume these truisms from the moment our infant brains can understand them and we don’t stop until we’ve seen one too many cliché-littered Pinterest boards. But the reality is, if you’re flailing your limbs on the dance floor without a single thought of who’s watching, or who’s within arm’s reach, you might accidentally smack someone in the face. How do you dance like you’re aware that people are watching, but you know that you’re dancing for yourself, and not for them? How can you think about the space you're taking up on the dance floor without having it affect your self-expression? How soon until we're done with this metaphor? It's important to "be true to yourself," but if you’re not thinking about how others respond to your behavior, you might be missing out on opportunities to connect, and you may even hurt others or yourself in the process.
For example, if you share your deepest traumas with a new coworker the first time you two meet, they might feel an uncomfortable obligation to support you, that then leads them to avoid you. You might notice their aversion and feel rejected, unworthy, or just generally awful. On the other hand, if you’re spending too much energy trying to anticipate how other people might respond to your every utterance, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be present or vulnerable enough to create a meaningful connection. For instance, If I show up to a party with the sole objective of leaving a flattering impression on the other guests, I am probably going to avoid talking about topics that foster connection, because those usually entail a risk of judgment.
So, how do we find the balance of “being ourselves" that feels right? We’ve come up with a question that you can ask yourself before or during any social situation to help address this conundrum:
What parts of myself can I comfortably share here? What are some personality traits, interests, facts about yourself, etc. that you anticipate will feel positive (or neutral) for you to share in a particular social space? If you’re prepping for Christmas with the in-laws, the answer might look something like: “I think I’d feel good or okay sharing my warmth, my humor, my curiosity, my penchant for The Great British Bake Off, my passion for woodworking, and the fact that I got a new job.” Now, even in a social situation that may feel like the stakes are high, you have a clearer idea of what pieces of yourself you can share freely.
It may also be helpful to think about what parts of yourself you’d rather not share. In the above example of the in-laws over the holidays, you might feel positively about sharing your sense of humor, but you might hold off on your dark or extra-dry humor because you don’t anticipate your in-laws understanding or appreciating it. You might feel comfortable sharing that you had an argument with your parents last week, but maybe you would rather not discuss what it was you were fighting about because you expect that it would just stress everyone out without helping you feel better. You might feel okay sharing that you’ve been having a hard time lately, but maybe you don’t think that delving into your most recent battle with depression will be received with the level of understanding that you want right now.
It's okay not to share everything with everyone. Authenticity is not "all or nothing." However, if you find yourself consistently keeping parts of yourself from everyone in your life, you may want to consider finding new social spaces (like community organizations, new friends, etc.) where you can more fully express those parts of yourself. You don't have to share 100% of yourself in all social situations, but making sure that every part of yourself that's important to you has some space to be expressed will probably make it feel much easier to be in situations where it would be harmful to express them.
Thinking about what parts of yourself you’d enjoy sharing and what parts of yourself would be unwise to share in any given social situation can help you feel more like yourself no matter what the social scenario. And if you are "being yourself" in a way that feels comfortable and authentic, the relationships you develop are likely to follow suit.