How to Be Yourself (Even When You Don’t Know Who You Are)

It’s one of the most cliche cliches out there: Just be yourself. I remember being told this once and thinking, “What does that even mean?” and “Yeah, but who exactly is this self that I am supposed to be?”

Whether you are in the stage of identity-development of trying to decide on a persona to play or of slowly shedding the many personas/identities/egos you’ve accumulated, not knowing who you are is pretty normal.

Furthermore, most of us (myself absolutely included) are so used to playing predefined roles in the majority of interactions that authenticity is hard to even wrap our heads around. Like what would that even look like? If you hate someone, do you have to tell them? Does it mean you shout, “please, leave the sick bastard!” in the middle of a movie theater in response to the heroine’s obviously terrible choice of a romantic partner? Because that’s how you feel?

Well, responding authentically “as ourselves” is something that is fluid and cannot be easily defined. Obviously. But obviously, by the fact that I am writing this post, I have attempted to define how this can be done in an extremely oversimplified way. Or maybe it is that simple. I wouldn’t know. Hey, don’t ask me, I’m the one who takes a shower and forgets to shave one leg.

But, according to this half-shaved human, two habits go into “being yourself” in any given moment:

1.) Responding with how you authentically feel in a situation and;

2.) Letting your values inform your response.

If you have the first factor without the second, you might just lose friends and alienate people, due to appearing to be a callous jerk and/or completely socially inept. Also, you might not be offered an office job if you show up to the interview wearing this:

Victoria Secret Holiday 2013 Show
Image here.

…even though it really expresses how you authentically feel that day.

If you habitually employ the second habit without the first, you might slip into people-pleasing mode or otherwise lose sight of what you actually think and feel about…anything.

For example, if you value getting along with others but do not reveal how you authentically feel about things, you might just go along with whatever anyone else says for the sake of maintaining harmony. Sometimes this strategy works out. Sometimes it really doesn’t.

It is okay to respond differently in different situations; it doesn’t mean you are fake; it means you are capable of functioning in society. Thus, I will not act the same way at a job interview as I would while having a raucous evening with friends. Similarly, you probably won’t speak to your child in the same way that you speak to your partner. Ditto speaking to your own parents.

Of course, it is possible to go too far and become a complete chameleon, but if you make habits 1 and 2 a natural part of your life, you will be safe from waking up one morning and finding yourself with color-changing scales.

Embracing Habit #1:

Habit number 1 involves some level of self-awareness, and also a willingness to be vulnerable to the extent that is appropriate to the situation. You can try randomly asking yourself throughout the day what you are feeling in the moment to get more in touch with how you really feel about things. Then, use the wisdom of Habit #2 to decide how to respond/interact with others while being true to how you really feel.

Embracing Habit #2:

So, if you want to make habits 2 part of your life, how do you determine what it is you value? Well, bro, this is the hard part. Actually, all of “being yourself” is the hard part. But here is a cool exercise we therapists sometimes have clients do to determine their values:

It is called….ah hem…. the values clarification exercise. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

Values Clarification Exercise:

1.) Check out a list of values like this one here. If there are any important to you that are not on the list, add them in yourself.

2.) Choose your top five in no particular order and write them on index cards.

3.) Imagine you are forced to give one up. Which one would you give up? Set it off to the side.

4.) Repeat step 3. Cry a little inside.

5.) Repeat Step 4. Die a little on the inside.

6.) Repeat Step 5.

7.) You are now left with just one chosen value. Presumably, this is what is most important to you right now, in this moment. (Top values can change).

This can help you assess your priorities and come to understand what is most important to you in this life. Of course, the other 4 values are still central to your life.

Fortunately, much of the time we get to live in tune with several of our top values. At other times, though, our values may conflict and force us to make unpleasant decisions. Knowing the values that are core to who we are and who we want to be helps us responding effectively and authentically in tough situations.

Bringing it all Together to be the Special Snowflakes We Are:

Recipe for the real, authentic You:

  • Knead several generous scoops of self-awareness until it turns into a soft, fluffy vulnerability;
  • Combine with equal parts firm values;
  • Add a dash or two of wisdom to make the authenticity fit the situation;
  • Bake in a dish both strong and flexible at 350 until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • Repeat process daily.


How do you practice being true to yourself? Have you found any secrets to share? Did you try the values clarification exercise? What are your top values?

*First image by Philip Dean

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