"Just be yourself" is cruel, fraudulent advice to give young people

As my daughters graduate, they're hounded by this hollow motto of Western capitalism. What should we say instead?

Published June 15, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

     (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/CEFutcher#f9d1016'>Christopher Futcher</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(Christopher Futcher via iStock)

Their entire lives, my children have been hounded by one simple yet relentless, cruel and existentially meaningless phrase. I'm pretty sure yours have, too. It has nipped at their heels as they've negotiated, alone or with assistance, every transition our society requires them to make on their lonely way to maturity. It has dogged them mercilessly through every audition – for a place in pre-school, kindergarten, high school and college; summer jobs and school plays; making new friends and keeping the old. It has nagged at them as they’ve learned how to make choices that will be both pleasing to themselves and satisfy the obscure ambitions of their parents – choices about what clothes to wear, what food to eat and how much of it, what music to listen to, what summer camp to go to, how to share their own feelings and protect their own privacy. It has whispered insidiously in their ear as they have sought to fashion some kind of understanding of who they are, what kind of person they want to be or think they should be, and what sort of place they feel entitled to occupy in this world. Right now, as one daughter graduates from college and the other from high school, its voice is perhaps as shrill, insistent and inescapable as it has ever been throughout their brief lives.

That phrase, of course, is “Just be yourself” – the motto inscribed on the family crest of late-capitalist Western individualism. It is the invisible lattice, the matrix on which all social interaction and expectation are constructed, and without which we might very well cease to exist as a society and to recognize ourselves in the mirror. Ever since Polonius told Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” as he sent him off to college overseas, it has been both the mating call and the password to success for the striving classes.

Yet I am deeply ambivalent about imparting it to my graduating daughters for a golden rule as they make their way into their new lives. Advice from a parent to a child is supposed to be based on experience, deliberation and wisdom. And it has been my experience, which I have tried to parse as deliberately and wisely as I am able, that telling your children to just be themselves is fraudulent, confounding and misleading. Even when heavily burdened with caveats, it’s barely more than hollow doublespeak.

To be yourself or be true to yourself, you must, of course, know yourself. And yet, when you consider for even one brief moment the sort of people who seem to know themselves well enough to be themselves, they’re pretty much the opposite of who you would want your children to be. A man who knows himself is someone who is dead certain of what he wants and makes all his choices – about career, mate, income level, spirituality, politics – with a view to acquiring it. A man who knows himself is one who cannot entertain the idea that he might be wrong, or that there may be two or more viable ways of interpreting an issue or solving a problem. A man who knows himself projects that arrogance into his judgement of others, and formulates opinions about them that are almost inescapably ill-founded and unshakable. In the life and ideas of a man who knows himself (or even thinks he knows himself), there is no room for the whimsy, ambivalence, doubt, nuance, curiosity and inquisitiveness upon which all creative thought is based. If you know someone who understands or believes he understands everything that makes him think, feel, behave and react the way he does, chances are you don’t like him very much.

I know that I do not want my children to understand themselves so perfectly that they have no search for the self to look forward to. Even if that were possible it would be truly sad and self-defeating, because the most rewarding part of leading an informed, curious, engaged life is that your entire adulthood can be oriented toward gaining self-knowledge, and it is in seeking to understand yourself that you are opened to understanding others. Some of us might say that it’s the only truly essential hallmark of a healthy adulthood and a prerequisite of happiness and emotional fulfillment.

Presuming that you want the best for your children, what then could it mean to tell them to be true to themselves? Obviously, you’re not telling them to be smug, dismissive, inflexible or mercenary. The truth is that most of us probably don’t give much thought to what “just be yourself” or “be true to yourself” might actually mean, and that when we do we must very quickly come to see that we have little idea of what it means. Probably, when coaching our overburdened child to be herself prior to some academic interview (in New York, this can happen not just pre-college, but at every transition in the schooling ladder), what we think we are saying is that she should not try to impress the interviewer by pretending to know or understand something that she doesn’t know or understand, because simply telling the interviewer about the things she knows and that interest her will be more than enough to convey her unique perspective, which is precisely what the interviewer is seeking. In other words, in being yourself you are giving the interviewer exactly what he wants – which is you, whether he knows it or not. You just have to sell him on that fact.

So telling a child to be herself doesn’t make it easier on her, as we believe we are doing; it makes it far more difficult, because we’re asking that child to describe herself in coherent, eloquent, grammatical language that may be the farthest thing from how she feels about herself. If she were to truly be herself, especially if she’s a teenager, she might come across as confused, insecure, incoherent, mercurial and intellectually chaotic. Your child knows that’s not what you mean, so when she hears you tell her to be herself she knows, better than you do, that you are lying – again. She knows you’re really asking her to be ruthlessly competitive in the race for authenticity, the ultimate social currency. And then we’re surprised when so many of the most successful people in our society turn out to be greedy, narcissistic and emotionally unattainable, even to themselves. In a nutshell, you can’t possibly just “be yourself” if you have little idea of who you are, or who you might be one day. If it makes little sense to tell an adult to be himself, it makes even less to tell it to a child or a teenager.

So if we decide not to burden our graduating child with the one indispensable piece of wisdom with which children have been dispatched to the wider world for hundreds of years, what’s left? Well, despite being a windbag and a “tedious old fool,” Polonius had a few bits of useful advice for his son that we might share with our own offspring: think twice before expressing your opinion, be thrifty, dress well but not flashily, listen carefully to what others have to say, don’t borrow money you can’t pay back. All of this remains valid, reasonable and worth reiterating, but it doesn’t really hit the spot; it doesn’t satisfy the itch to send our departing child off with the kind of transcendent pearl that she will remember all her life and repeat to your grandchildren as they prepare to teleport to their freshman year at the University of Mars.

Frankly, if you haven’t been preparing them for this moment their entire lives, it may well be a little too late at this point to send them away armed with unfamiliar new codes of conduct to guide and protect them through the dangerous journey ahead. I’d like to believe that I haven’t fallen into that trap, but just in case, this is more or less what I’d tell my girls upon their graduation.

Forget about trying to “be yourself.” Believe me, some of us have been working on it since we were your age, and we’re no closer to figuring it out than you are. Sometimes you just have to fake it a little in this world. There’s nothing wrong with acting a little more confident than you feel, being a little kinder than someone might deserve, taking a little more risk than you’re comfortable with, acting brave when you feel afraid, or showing someone else a little love when you’re most in need of it yourself. No one’s going to pour venom into your ear while you sleep, or stab you to death behind an arras, for doing your best to remain a decent, open-minded and generous person in a trying and cynical world, even when you’re not absolutely convinced that you are one. It may not be a true part of thine own self, but then again it may well be. Hard to tell at your age. Either way, it will get you through the hard parts until you have a better sense of who thine own self is. And in any case, it never hurts to be nice.

As I said, that’s what I would tell my daughters, if only I could get them to listen to a word I say. But in their conviction that they know it all better than I do, I guess they're just being themselves.

By Jesse Browner

Jesse Browner is an American novelist, translator and essayist. His memoir, "How Did I Get Here? Making Peace with the Road Not Taken," will be published by HarperCollins on June 30. He lives in New York City.

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