Read to learn what being true to yourself is and why many of us are wrong in our beliefs on how to be true to yourself.
After reading vulnerability expert Brené Brown, I became determined to live more authentically. I wanted to stop being controlled by societal norms and a fear of being unlikable. The world would see my true self and nothing but my true self, so help me God.
I read a series of memoirs that continued to inspire my “be true to yourself” pursuit. Glennon Doyle told me to trust my inner knowing. Elizabeth Gilbert told me to unlock the hidden treasures within me. Mark Manson told me to stop giving a f*ck about things that weren’t important.
I knew the journey would require courage, but I had the courage ready to give.
But my journey began to hit stumbling blocks along the way. Moments came and went when I didn’t know if I had lived authentically. Then, more moments came when I didn’t know what living authentically looked like. Soon, I was stumbling more than I was walking.
While the memoirs’ lessons stuck with me, I quickly realized that courage was not enough cargo for my backpack. I was carrying a daypack for a journey that required an overnight camping bag. (You know the ones with the metal brace and buckled loops?) Oh, and I didn’t have the endurance yet, either.
I’m not belittling the authors’ message or calling them liars. Looking back, I can see the messages that I ignored in their stories. Being true to yourself isn’t courageously choosing to be true to yourself. This concept of “just choose it” is overly simplistic.
And yet, it’s the notion that many of us believe in and grasp every day.
The Societal Trap: Why “Just Be True to Yourself” is a Myth
Most of us have probably seen a quote along the lines of, “Follow your heart. Be true to yourself.” Whether it was written in fancy gold script on the wall of your favorite boutique cafe or bold black lettering on a mug, the message is the same: It’s best to be our true selves.
In the simplicity of these quotes, we become conditioned to ignore the complexities behind them. We overlook the implicit messages lurking behind the gold script or bold letters.
“Follow your heart. Be true to yourself” implies three myths:
- Our hearts know best.
- Staying true to yourself is a choice.
- You should know who your true self is.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Myth #1: Our hearts know best.
I love my fiancé very much. I believe he is one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met, and I wish nothing more than for him to be happy. Rationally, I know he is one of the best things that have happened to me.
But then, when my emotions get involved? All of this romantic hogwash gets thrown out the window. Sure, he can be happy – but you better believe he’ll have to listen to my complaints and anger first. (I sound lovely, don’t I?)
This relationship illustration may seem like a specific example, but it represents a universal concept. When we romanticize our hearts, we lump all of our emotions together. (We also ignore the fact that our emotional brain sits at the stem of our spinal cord, while our heart is a pumping organ connected by veins and arteries. But that’s a lot of words to fit on a cute poster, you know?)
“Our hearts know best” implies that we should let our emotions dictate our decisions. But emotions are chemical responses in our body that are rooted in evolutionary DNA. At their most basic level, they are designed to help us survive. Fear of danger. Anxiety over uncertainty. Desire for pleasure over pain. All innate wirings that regularly influence our behaviors – often without our awareness.
If we try to follow our emotions, we’ll set ourselves down a path that’s far from what we want. Emotions will lead us in circles and frequently-changing courses. Not to mention the fact that human biology will lead us when rational thought would serve us better.
Myth #2: Staying true to yourself is a choice.
I know most of you will instinctively react negatively to this declaration. How do I know this? Because I know that humans crave control, and anything that seems to take away our autonomy is seen as a threat. I have a choice to be myself, damnit!
You do have a choice. (And please, stop swearing – kids read this!) However, this choice is not a catch-all for how your life will go.
You see, we like to think living authentically is waking up one day and saying, “I choose this life from now on.” As if there’s a multiple-choice question that we receive and can check the “True Self” box.
We like these images because they seem easy, certain, and in our control. But if you remember Myth #1, you know that your emotions make you want these things. And your emotions are precisely why it’s not a one-time choice.
Yes, you can decide to try to live more authentically. But being true to yourself requires daily, hourly, and even minute-ly decisions that keep you on this authentic path.
It also requires you to become more self-aware of what’s not in your control. Humans are biased, emotionally-illogical, and reactive to our environments. A part of choosing to be your true self means choosing to understand what will prevent you from doing so.
Then, you can move onto the next self-awareness hurdle. And it’s a doozy.
Myth #3: You should know who your true self is.
If I could edit these motivational signs, I would cross out “Stay true to yourself” and replace it with:
Commit yourself deeply to the pursuit of self-awareness, including all of the obstacles that prevent self-awareness in its full capacity. Work to understand how you’re influenced by outside influences and how powerful a role shame plays in your life. Then, begin to practice being more vulnerable to yourself and with others as you strive – and regularly fail – in your pursuit of being your true self.
Oh, and remember that your “true self” is always evolving, so you’ll never really reach it anyway.
The aesthetics of these signs might take a hit, but I believe the message would carry a lot more weight in our lives.
We all lack self-awareness (and to further this problem, our biases make us think that we don’t lack self-awareness). This lacking is not our fault. In fact, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to embrace our lack of self-awareness.
And don’t get me wrong; looking at signs you’re being true to yourself isn’t a bad thing.
However, the uncertainty of not knowing leaves us feeling fearful and anxious. Lacking makes us feel awkward. Not being able to define our authentic selves makes us feel vulnerable. After all, how can I present my true self to other people if I don’t know who it is?
This is why many of us default to presenting an inauthentic version. Something feels better than nothing. An inauthentic version feels better than saying, “I don’t know who I am.”
The heavy truth, my friends, is this: embracing “I don’t know who I am” is the secret to being true to yourself.
How to Be True to Yourself: Embrace Not Knowing
Glennon Doyle has published three memories in the last seven years. After gaining a large following on her Christian motherhood blog, she released her first memoir in 2013 called Carry On, Warrior. The memoir talks about her personal story of letting go of perfection as a mother, wife, and friend. In 2016, she published Love Warrior, which described her decision to stay with her husband after learning that he cheated on her.
Then, in 2020, she published a third memoir, Untamed. This one described her newfound discovery that she wanted to divorce her husband and instead be with a woman she fell in love with.
Ironically, she decided to leave her husband when her second memoir – all about staying with her husband – launched its first book tour. Talk about awkward timing.
While Glennon’s courage to be so vulnerable in the public eye is commendable, my point is not to encourage everyone to share memoirs about their lives. Instead, Glennon’s unique experience teaches a different lesson. With each memoir, she writes about her search for authenticity in that period of her life.
Then, as life goes on, she’s not afraid to share her newest version. After multiple versions, she proved that our “true self” – even when it’s typed, published, and read by millions of people – can change. And that’s okay.
What is Being True to Yourself? Allowing Yourself to Evolve
Being true to yourself today might look vastly different than what it’ll be in a year, two years, a decade. At every stage of our lives, we grow and evolve. Our values shift and change. Life events force us to reevaluate what we consider meaningful in our lives.
This “openness” is scary to us because it’s filled with uncertainty and loose ends. We like things tied up neatly, all loopholes closed. We prefer to nail up our “true self” image rather than use a more temporary command strip.
Yet when you choose to nail something up, you actually get further away from how to be true to yourself. Because, not only are you closing yourself off from future possibility, but you’re attaching yourself to an outdated version. In doing so, you’re adding another significant obstacle to the long list of reasons why it’s hard for us to be self-aware.
How to be true to yourself is not a quick or comfortable path. Instead, it’s a long and never-ending journey toward self-awareness. It requires courage and vulnerability. You must be armed with support, knowledge, and hard questions.
Before packing up, however, you must start with the fundamental truth behind it all.
“Be true to yourself” is a well-intentioned statement that sounds good but lacks depth. The actual message needs a much bigger sign.
Steps for How to Be True to Yourself
1. Learn more about what self-awareness is, what’s getting in the way of your self-awareness, and what you can do to be more self-aware.
Self-awareness is being able to identify and manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If you’re self-aware, you understand who you are and how you fit in the world. You also can recognize how others see you and what impact you leave on them. There are many obstacles when it comes to being self-aware, including brain biases, confusing emotions, and societal pressures. The more you understand these obstacles, the more you can work to limit their control in your life and learn what it means to be true to yourself.
- How Self-Aware Are You? A Free Self-Awareness Test
- Examples of Self-Awareness in Your Everyday Life
- Signs You Lack Self-Awareness in Your Life
2. Recognize what’s in your control and what’s not.
Letting go of things out of our control isn’t easy – especially when almost everything is out of our control. We must spot when we’re stuck in illusions of control. Then, we can redesign our environment and reclaim our lives through the narratives we tell ourselves. This is a critical step in how to be true to yourself.
- Why Self-Awareness is Important: Recognizing What You Can Control
- Design your Environment for Success
- Why Feeling Awkward Might Be Your Superpower
3. Understand why vulnerability is so important, why it’s so hard, and what you can do to live a more vulnerable life.
Vulnerability is defined as taking an emotional risk when we don’t know the outcome. When we lead vulnerable lives, we risk rejection when we choose to live more authentically. Vulnerability is necessary to live meaningful lives, yet many things discourage us from embracing vulnerability and being true to ourselves. Being vulnerable doesn’t just entail being honest with others. It also includes being honest with ourselves and allowing ourselves to do the hard work as we learn what it means to be true to yourself.
- Why Vulnerability is Important
- How to Be More Vulnerable in your Everyday Life
- How to Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
4. Continue the self-discovery process with questions, activities, and thought-provoking ideas.
Since we’re always evolving, the self-discovery journey is an ongoing process. There are many practices and habits that we can do to prioritize self-awareness in our lives. Whether you like to journal, reflect, or discuss questions, you can open yourself up to more to your life possibilities. Then, you will learn how to be true to yourself more often.