Pop psychology and self help books have introduced us to an array of phrases which sound infinitely good and wise. “Be who you are” is one such exhortation frequently followed by the advice to “accept yourself”. I often find myself offering these and other similar tips to friends or during therapy sessions when confusion or anxiety arises around a difficult decision. It is something I do with caution though, and not without clarifying what self acceptance really means. For “to accept” or “to be yourself” simple as it sounds, could land you in an unimaginable mess if your understanding of it is half-baked.
One of the difficulties in being oneself is that most often it is not one’s real self that one is thinking of but one’s personality. All said and done the personality is nothing more than an image or a construct made up of all that we believe ourselves to be and this is what we identify with. Your personality has been formed over the years by your experiences, your education, your thoughts, desires and reactions to life, and all of this goes into forming the attitude which determines your decisions and actions. However a personality is subject to change. People have been known to become harsher and more rigid with time or softer and gentler over the years. Misfortune, success or any kind of drastic change in circumstances often leads to dramatic personality changes.
A personality - what you could look at as the skin or outer shell housing the psyche - is necessary to be able to function in life. Psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the persona - “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”. The problem lies with our tendency to over-identify with the mask. This is mainly what causes unnecessary confusion and unhappiness. We feel offended by people who don’t agree with us or see us the way we want to be seen, experiencing their disagreement as a personal attack instead of realizing that what they are criticizing is not the actual person but the wrapping which temporarily enfolds us without quite defining who we are. And we often make major life choices on the way we see ourselves and want to be seen, rather than on who we really are.
The question, is whether there is anything beyond the personality which is more real or unchanging, anything which we can call “myself” or “me”, to do with our intrinsic essence. This essence is easy to experience when it comes to nature - or food for example. The quality, the flavor of a plum or a slice of pizza, the beauty of a sunset, birdsong, communicates itself to us directly without the intervention of thought even though we may later use thoughts to describe the experience to someone else.
To experience the essence of a human being in the same way is more difficult because we are not used to thinking of ourselves or of others without the images or ideas we have of each other which mostly stem from the past and have nothing to do with the present moment. If the inner sense of self has been sufficiently suppressed you may not even be open to the idea of there being anything beyond your assumed identity. And so begins the inner tussle and resulting frustration which many of us are subject to. We often end up pursuing goals which are part of a social package even if they go against our true character, end up living in the wrong environment with the wrong people - all because we are terrified of losing something. We are afraid of losing the social respect and admiration we have been taught to want, of being abandoned, terrified of being thrown out of our comfort zone through any wrong choices we might make. In those rare moments of honesty though, which blink at us through the walls of conditioning we may become conscious of the nagging feeling of something being missing in our lives, something not being quite right.
What might help here, is to stop for a moment to look at this question: who would you be if there were nobody around you to impress or be admired by? Or to put it another way, if other people’s appreciation mattered little to you, what would you do and how would you live? How would it be different? This state of internal independence is one that all babies are born with and which they experience until they are schooled in the ways of the world. It is a state of discovery, of wonder, of delight, and sometimes of puzzlement at the kaleidoscopic nature of their environment, which you see in their eyes and reactions. Is such a thing even conceivable for us as adults?
To leave aside all thought of approval from others and truly find out what your physical or emotional needs are, directly, might require a period of quiet reflection away from the pressures of daily life. But to just get back into contact with the essence and the flow from your inner essence would help you to distinguish between the part intrinsic to yourself and the part shaped by society. Though for the sake of practicality many decisions may still have to be made while keeping social norms and conditions in mind, knowledge of the way you are, would help you to make certain basic decisions necessary to your well-being and find ways to work in the direction most suited to you even while respecting the culture in which you live.
The process requires you to become aware of the fear of getting to know yourself for it may mean questioning the way you have lived till now. It will be important for you to critically examine the beliefs by which you have been influenced. What are they? How have they helped or hampered you?
The more quickly we find our inner balance through rediscovering and fulfilling our true needs the easier it becomes to enjoy life and live in harmony with others. This in effect, is our main choice - whether to live according to our innate state of being or allow ourselves to be dictated to by others. And you know you have chosen in your favor and in favor of life, when you are ready to invest time and energy in reflecting about yourself in order to get sorted out. That choice means to leave aside the many distractions which constantly seduce us into filling up our minds with rubbish and to free the mind for new inputs. It means devoting time and energy to reflecting in stillness rather than in mind-games involving complicated analytical maneuvers as we tend to do when we endlessly argue or debate with each other.
In a strange way, being “true to yourself” rather than to give in to conditioned responses helps you to reconnect with the world and with other people in a way you never imagined. Self understanding leads to a deeper understanding of others and lays the best foundation for a civilized and peaceful society.
The path before you may be full of twists and turns and may initially feel impossibly difficult. Walking on one which you know is yours, however, and not in a direction proposed by another person no matter how wise or how much older, apart from helping you to make the right decisions, brings a sense of truth, reality and satisfaction which makes all the difficult moments seem worthwhile.