We’ve all heard refrains of “just be yourself” or “stay true to yourself,” but what does that actually mean? How do you know when you aren’t being yourself? What are the steps you can take to actually be yourself?
About two years ago, I had a mental breakdown after years of depression from masking and not understanding why I seemed so different from other people.
I started therapy knowing that I needed to get to the bottom of my behaviors and keeping an open mind about what that might look like. I began wondering why I did a task a certain way or hid specific behaviors from others. That pondering transformed into a full interrogation of self—I started asking myself these questions at every opportunity:
- Who am I doing this for?
- Who am I trying to please?
- Who am I giving power over this?
If the answer wasn’t “me,” then I asked myself why and often learned about a new way I had let someone have power over me. In time, I answered “me” more frequently, and I started understanding my own desires better.
I also figured out that sometimes the answer wasn’t a person; it was “society,” “tradition,” “routine,” or another ambiguous, arbitrary standard. I found several answers easily; however, many of my best introspective moments came while writing and organizing thoughts in a journal.
For example, I was lingering in my closet while dressing for work one morning. When I finally settled on an outfit, I was relieved that I could wear it because my boss was out of the office that week.
My boss hadn’t commented on that outfit in the past, and it’s actually one of my favorites to wear; however, it does represent more of the “new me” rather than the “old me” my boss wishes I could be again.
I realized that I had let my boss have power over me in that instance. Why was I doing that? I knew I wouldn’t lose my job over that outfit (it was definitely not too casual or revealing for a professional setting). I was essentially choosing not to wear it previously because I might slightly annoy my boss if he saw me that day.
There are many opportunities for you to choose to be yourself; they occur more often than you realize, and all it takes is a slight pause to consider motives:
- Can you wear that shirt? Who is saying that you can’t? Who are you doing that for?
- Should you laugh at that joke? Do you want to laugh because others are laughing? Are you trying to please them at the expense of yourself?
- Should you promote that idea? Who are you trying to please? Who are you giving power by sharing that idea?
- Can you use sparkly gel pens to edit technical reports? Who will stop you? And who wouldn’t want to use sparkly pens anyway?! ✨😉✨
I didn’t find my true self instantly—it came slowly as I recognized more choices in more situations. Six months after I first sat on my therapist’s couch and started asking those questions, I realized I was autistic and had been unknowingly masking behaviors for years. I began chipping away at my autistic mask the same way, and about 18 months later I knew enough about myself to come out as a transgender woman.
I understand that there are good reasons not to “be yourself,” like a transgender woman concerned about her safety in a public space, or an employee worried about being reprimanded.
My main point is that I had more control than I realized, over more choices than I realized. I bet you can find many similar instances in your own lives where you can take back control as well.
Who do you give power to?