Be yourself we are told time and time again. No problem, if only I knew which of the many ‘I’s within was the ‘real one’. What I always wanted to know was- who is the ‘myself’ referred to?
As I have mentioned earlier, the central ‘I’, the only one you can rely on at all times is the observing self, what Adam Smith termed ‘the impartial spectator’. This is the self that simply notes what is happening, as it is happening.
But doing battle with the world requires action and despite some of the evidence out there, at least a smidgin of personality. So, an internal brew of familiar thoughts is shackled to a way of acting/speaking/appearing-in-the-world to become ‘us’, ‘the real me’, ‘my work self’ etc etc.
I just read a self help book where the author says her biggest aid in ‘being herself’ is say to herself: ‘be Gretchen’. Her name, as you may have gathered, is Gretchen. Somehow it conjures up all the annoying qualities this woman displays in her worthy tome…you can see how it works though. By calling herself ‘Gretchen’ instead of ‘I’ she puts a halt on behaviour that may be determined over much by others. By using her name she reminds herself that she exists, that there is another person in the room here.
So ‘being yourself’ in this situation really means ‘don’t get pushed around’. And isn’t that a concern with a lot of people doing jobs they may not like and living in a world with an awful lot of rules and regulations? ‘Being yourself’ becomes more like ‘I want to feel free’.
The truth is we are several selves, each one seamlessly segueing into another as the day goes by. Go from dealing with an unfamiliar situation down at the police station to drinking with a good friend and different selves will emerge. What is constant, though, is the impartial spectator observing the change from self to self.
I know that when I have been writing a long time there is a very inward almost shy self in the driving seat. If I have just completed ten miles with a rucksack on my back I’m ready to have a chat with anyone I meet and even armwrestle them into the bargain. Different selves.
Since you can’t talk a self into existence you have to do something to make him or her emerge shy and blinking into the limelight. How long does it take you to lose all vestiges of anger after some argument or another? Well that’s how long it’ll take for a new self to be levered into place.
Most of us just let it happen, but if you do competitive sports or perform on stage then you learn ways of making the self you want appear on cue.
In a curious – and fascinating- experiment I had to play for one evening the Victorian explorer Richard Burton. I knew that I couldn’t summon up his persona if I was already in company with the other actors (one of whom was playing the actor Richard Burton- as I said, it was a curious experiment). But I knew that if was already ‘in character’ when I met the cast then I could carry it off. So, after getting dressed in vaguely Victorian gear I psyched myself up by repeating lines and ad libbing as I walked double quick to the first meeting. And it worked. A lot of it had to do with getting the posture right- which is something emphasised by martial arts. If you get the posture right the right martial thoughts enter your head.
But instead of being myself I was being another.
Strangely, though, this alien self was now another ‘self’ I had within me at my disposal. Maybe this new self could be used to get me a pay rise...
Sometimes to be ‘ourselves’ we need to do something that our everyday self can’t manage. So we need a more extrovert self to do the job for us. Paradoxically, to be ourselves we have to be someone else.
First way: We can select a more outgoing self we want to be by observing what behaviour brings them out: a long walk, a weight lifting routine, forcing yourself to talk to a complete stranger.
Second way: A bizarre old Samurai trick to bring out your extrovert side is to dab water on both earlobes, shout as loud as you can and snap a stick or chopstick. It’s an old Samurai technique for getting rid of nerves – and funny though it is (do it in private), it really does shift you into a new self.
Some people we act phoney around- but it takes two to tango. If they cause us to act phoney, they must have a good slice of phoneyness in them. Or else they are denying us the attention we crave, so we start to try anything to get attention.
Other problems come down to status. In many situations- school, work, ‘civilised’ surroundings we try and find out whether we are higher or lower status than our interlocutor. This determines how we should behave. But this is wrong headed. We shouldn’t be worried about what people think of us. Yet there is a lot of conditioning through education and other institutions so make us believe our status in any interaction is ‘us’.
This is another reason why I like walking. Out on the trail all men and women are equal. You don’t worry about status. Or, more correctly, status is malleable, not set in stone. Your personal history doesn’t count as much as simply being on the walk. You can set it aside and get onto more interesting matters.
Dr Johnson once observed that two men can never be together for more than half an hour before one forming the view he is the superior of the other. Maybe- but in some situations thinking you’re ‘superior’ carries a lot of implications. In others it’s kind of irrelevant. And out in the wild places it is kind of irrelevant. Humility is more useful when there are plenty of rocks to trip over. Of course you could get competitive about walking- who gets up the hill fastest etc- but that is so obvious it’s almost funny.
Third way: Rather than ‘be yourself’ try ‘don’t care what people think of me’.
Often when we say “ I just couldn’t be myself” we mean we weren’t getting the kind of attention we usually get, or desire. I discovered something interesting about this, when, as an experiment, I just communicated for a day through writing notes- I pretended to be mute. What I found was that I felt ‘really myself’- because though I could only get into the conversation from time to time, what I ‘said’ was given a whole lot more attention than mere words spoken. So though I said less I got more attention and so felt more ‘me’.
In the West there is a connection between status and attention. The higher your status the more attention you get. So people waste their working lives trying to be higher status than each other. But the game is flawed because by playing ‘low status’- ‘I’m ill’, ‘I’m useless’, ‘the underdog who sees through the overdog’ you can actually get more attention. Tattoes get you a good attention dose too..
In the East people are less attention starved than the West. Probably because they give and receive attention more easily. Social life revolves around attention interchange, whereas in the West we have to smuggle our attention exchanges in: hence pointless meetings, water cooler chat etc. We’re made to feel giving and receiving attention is somehow a weak thing. Hence, perhaps, our reliance on status to get us attention. In a sense it is because in the East people understand this, they are therefore not so stingy with their attention. They are, in this way, more civilised than us.
Once people have perfected a routine that gets them the kind of attention they like they probably think of this as ‘the real me’. But is it? It’s just one of many selves you have at your disposal.
Doesn’t this undermine the whole ‘being yourself’ project though? I think it shows that it is actually something else. What we mean by being yourself is: know what you like doing, what you should be doing and be in alignment with your path, what’s right for you and the people you care about.
What we mean by ‘be yourself’- is really- ‘stick to your path.’ If ‘being yourself’ means staying on your path, seeing the right way forward- then it’s a good thing. But if it just means fashioning an inflexible persona that simply exists to maximise attention then what’s the utility in that?
Fourth way: If you make a mental allowance before talking, seeking only to say your stuff without caring what kind of attention you get, you’ll find you can more easily ‘be yourself’.