“Just be yourself.” How many times have you heard that? It is the advice given by friends, psychologists, life coaches and even career advisors. “Being yourself” is widely recognised as the best policy.
But what if that were not always the case? Of course, from other people’s point of view, if you are “yourself”, then they know exactly where they stand with you. What I am questioning is, whether “being yourself” is always to your best advantage.
What if this “yourself” either offends, irritates, discomforts people – or simply does not fit into the socially recognised grid?
In the 21st Century, we pride ourselves with having demolished social conventions. We have merely changed the material that constitutes our clearly defined social grid. It is no longer made of heavy, palpable iron bars, but of invisible, though no less present, laser beams. You get a needle-like burn through your skin if you cross certain demarcations. As you try circulating from one box to another, you can end up covered in burns. Scalded, frightened, unsightly, lost and so no longer presentable to Society. At that point, you can slip off the grid all together, and try to find your way back in but the entrance is now camouflaged, like the door in The Secret Garden.
“I never fit in anywhere”. You often hear that declared in almost boastful tones by many people in artistic professions. This reminds me of some of the twenty year-old girls at my university who were so enamoured of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, claiming to relate to her feelings of depression. I think if you truly related to the profound despair expressed in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, you would be so deeply horrified by it, you would find it too painful to read, let alone go around telling the whole college that you relate to it. If you are sinking in black, sticky, scorching tar, you want to get out of it, not bathe in it and invite friends to take pictures. I think if people truly feel that they do not fit in anywhere, they do not shout it from the rooftops. They would be too afraid of being discovered. If you had something you knew would make the world dislike you or feel uncomfortable around you, would you really tell the world about it? I find it noteworthy that it is so often artists who win prizes and accolades who say they do not fit in. The very fact that they have won recognition contradicts that, surely. Van Gogh did not fit in. He never sold a painting in his lifetime.
Much gushing is done, nowadays, about the concept of “vulnerability”. People all over the place encourage you to show your vulnerability. Being vulnerable somehow equals being endearing. Why? Every domestic cat knows not to sleep with his/her throat exposed. It is basic self-preservation.
Yes, I am generalising, and the usual caveat applies. I am merely exaggerating to illustrate a point. We all know life is not all in black and white. However, I cannot illustrate a point in grey. It has to be in stark black and white contrast to be visible.
“Be yourself”. What does that mean, exactly? I still do not understand. I assume it means be honest with yourself and, by extension, with other people.
Can you always be honest?
At a job interview, do you tell your would-be employer that you really, desperately need the money? Or do you tell him/her that this is a challenging opportunity that you have been looking for all your life, and that working for this company is the sole object of your existence? When asked if you thrive under stress, do you laugh and reply, “It is medically impossible to thrive under stress” or do you say that you come alive under pressure?
Society has a list of recognised reasons for distress and, if yours falls into one of those categories, then people flock to your help. Among them are, bereavement, divorce, loss of job and illness. Mind, you have a time limit on those, too. But what if your distress is outside this approved list? How many people would sympathise if (for argument’s sake) after two years, you still grieved your dead cat? Or if (again, just as an example), you hated a situation others considered as “not so bad”? It is so much easier to blame your sadness on something that makes you appear less “weird”.
When people ask, “How are you?” how many are really prepared to hear woes? It is not that people do not care. Mostly, they do. What most people hate, is to feel powerless. If you tell them you are unhappy, they will try and fix it. But if they cannot fix it, they often resent you for being “un-fixable”. They cannot bear to have before them what they perceive as their failure to help. So they avert their eyes – and move on. One cannot, in truth, blame them. Would you want to feel bad about yourself?
Our understanding is determined by familiar codes. Like languages. People will, I believe, almost always try and help if they understand what you are conveying to them. But if you speak a language they do not know, how can you possibly expect them to respond? It is not that they do not want to help, it is that there is simply a communication problem.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to live off the social structure. It helps, if you have financial security and a strong support system. You must also perfect the art of living without regrets or expectations.
In the animal world, the odd one out is frequently either shunned, or bullied. It appears to be a natural instinct. Ethics and religion have spent centuries trying to root that instinct out of human beings. The result, in this adolescence phase of the human race, is a conflict between reason and nature.
There may – I believe will – come a time when Society is truly inclusive, non-judgmental and enlightened. I believe, with all my heart, that humans have a great capacity for kindness – even more so than they know. They just do not always know that. There’s the rub.
In the meantime, unless you have precious friends who happen to “get” you, appeal to your natural instinct of self-preservation. Perhaps keep the “being yourself” to “yourself”.