Oh, what a horrible and utterly useless piece of advice that is, isn’t it? How ghastly, when preparing for a job interview or a date, to hear those words, that hackneyed and mostly meaningless phrase: ‘just be yourself’.
I used to hate hearing that. Be myself?! Be MYSELF? That’s TERRIBLE advice. How do I do that, exactly? Surely only the most idiotic and un-socially skilled amongst us only have one self. I’ve met very few people who have one ‘self’, and persist in maintaining that self through every walk of life. That’s one step away from being that person who goes ‘I’m just ME. I’m ME, alright? And if you don’t like it or you can’t handle it, then I DON’T CARE, because I’M ME’.
Ultimately, none of it made sense to me. I didn’t feel I had an essential self to fall back on. I was too locked in to various layers of social norms to trust in myself. I had manufactured myself too careful, as I’m sure we all do. Starting young, when you learn to behave differently in front of your friends than you to in front of teachers or parents, you begin to develop an extremely complex system of behaviour. Changes may be subtle: a slight lowering of the voice to imply seriousness (my friends at school knew and could imitate very well my ‘about to get told off by a teacher’ voice), or they may be extreme, a whole different way of dressing, or a different set of language.
But what is the self? Is there one, essential self? And these various guises are just that – a charade? Or does our ‘self’ exist in all the different incarnations we choose to perpetrate? I struggled with my ‘self’ largely because I am terribly easily influenced, and a magnificent imitator. I adapt very quickly to surroundings. My voice will change, I will speak on a variety of different topics, and I will dress differently. Every single person I know has a slightly different version of me presented to them. I’m sure this is the case for many of you.
This behaviour was particularly heightened in me because of my early experience with drama. I tended to blur into characters. I’d read a book or a play and – consciously or otherwise – mimic expressions, voice, looks. I didn’t necessarily do it to blend in, more to experiment with my identity. I believe that your teenage years should be built around trying out different identities. How can you ever be sure about something until you’ve given it a chance? My teens and university years were fantastic for entering this dressing room of identities.
I don’t mean to say that I swung wildly from one personality to another – I’m not deranged; but I did play around. I played at doing different things, being different things. It’s known as the self-schema: the projection of a different personality dependent on the situation you’re in. I played at being shallow, and rather enjoyed it. I was terribly, terribly serious during a lot of my teenage years, and it was nice to feel different. To feel free. And yet I struggled at times, because I’d…and bear with me on this one, but…I’d let my ‘self’ go. If you see what I mean. In the endless churning of being with different people, dating different boys, having different friends, I suddenly realised I didn’t actually have a clue who I was anymore.
I distinctly remember waking up one day and realising I had no idea what music I liked. One of my ex-chaps was hugely into clubby, dancey stuff, and I’d just listen to that. He used to ask me, persistently and slightly bemusedly: ‘but what do YOU like? What do YOU listen to?’ And I couldn’t answer. I didn’t even know. I’d learnt an awful lot at university, but I also managed to unlearn things as well. I believe it was all essential, though. I needed to let go. I needed to unpick everything I knew and rebuild it.
What I did was this. I developed a self. I began (again, mostly subconsciously) to cherry-pick the parts of my various selves that made the most sense to me. I made sure I read a lot, listened to a lot of music, and thought a lot too. I kept the blonde hair and more fun-loving side from my ‘vacuous years’, and combined it with the knowledge and intelligence from my teenage years. University was absolutely indispensible in the development of my ‘self’. These days, I am unbelievably comfortable with who I am. As I touched on my article about fashion, I’ve realised that interests don’t have to mutually exclusive.
It’s been a turning point. For the first time in my life, I know who I am, and I know what I want to be. I feel happy. I feel calm. I trust in myself. I am no longer covering up parts of my identity and projecting others. I’m no longer afraid to show my intellect, or in fact to justify myself for, say, thinking Barbie is ace. If it makes me happy, I do it, or read it, or listen to it, and I don’t really worry too much about what anyone thinks. That said, I will still NEVER be the person who says ‘I’m me, and if you don’t like it, screw you’, because I think that’s wildly impolite and bordering on sociopathic. No need to be unpleasant to people.
So the advice I have is this. Don’t just be yourself. Develop a self. Cultivate yourself. Have interests, and be interesting. Experiment. Don’t just languish away, never knowing whether you might secretly LOVE death metal, or roller-blading, or….knitting. Try EVERYTHING. Take every opportunity. Talk to people – so much of my own identity has been cemented by some amazing friends. Have a diverse group of friends and you can’t go wrong. Keep an open mind, keep learning things, and never just ‘settle’. The world is an unbelievably exciting place, don’t you want to get the most out of it that you can?