I was sitting in my office listening to a very frustrated patient discuss why she hated dating. “I’m just so sick of it,” she said, “the fakeness, the games, the BS—I just want to be myself.” I nodded at the sentiment, as I had heard it many times before.
“And who are you?” I asked.
She looked at me with a blank stare.
What most people mean when they say they want to be themselves is that they want to be relaxed and comfortable, authentic, and free to express themselves, and they don’t want to be worried about being judged for doing it. But being yourself isn’t as simple as it seems, because you don’t have just one self; there are multiple versions of who you are. There is the self you are at work, the self you are with your best friend, the self you are with your family, the self you are with total strangers. There is your irritable self, your calm self, your social self, your kind self, your selfish self, and your best self. Sometimes you like yourself and sometimes you don’t. We are ever-changing beings.
Having a self that adapts to different situations is a highly desirable characteristic that demonstrates what psychologists refer to as EQ (emotional quotient), which is also known as social intelligence. Having good social intelligence reflects having knowledge of your own power to decide which self you want to be in a given situation.
If a friend tries to make you laugh by telling you a joke that isn’t funny, you could be your truthful self and say it wasn’t funny, which might hurt the friend’s feelings. Or you could be your sensitive, caring self who smiles because you want to make your friend feel good.
What is important to know is whether the self you are being at any given moment is a self that you like, and/or whether that self is helping you attain the things you want in life. Being your sarcastic self with your friends might make them laugh, but it probably wouldn't land you the job you are interviewing for. Yelling at a co-worker who makes a mistake might be a way to release your authentic anger in the moment but it won't gain his or her cooperation or motivation to help you in the future.
So how do you reconcile the desire to “be yourself” in situations where you feel unable to be authentic?
Recognize that you don’t just have one self. You have choices about which self to be, and being adaptable is a trait that reflects intelligence and awareness about the effect you have on other people, as well as your potential to influence situations. Just because you hold back expressing certain thoughts or behaving in certain ways doesn’t mean you aren’t being yourself; it means you are being an aware version of yourself that knows when certain self-expression is appropriate and when it isn’t. You can still respect your desire for expression of certain aspects of your personality by finding appropriate outlets. If you have an aggressive streak, take up a boxing class or play paintball, but don’t run people off the highway. Learning how to express the diverse aspects of who you are as a person can be one of the greatest joys in life, and an essential part of maintaining your emotional well-being. On the other hand, expressing yourself in a socially intelligent way is critical to your success in life—and will be greatly appreciated by those around you.
Goleman, Daniel. 2006. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Macmillan, New York.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.