Adapt to other people and lose the real you

MIND MOVES: It is difficult to be your true self if you are behaving in a way you think others expect, writes TONY BATES.

MIND MOVES:It is difficult to be your true self if you are behaving in a way you think others expect, writes TONY BATES.

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

– e.e. cummings

PERHAPS THE most irritating cliché we bandy around is “be yourself’’. It makes it sound so easy, so obvious.


“Don’t worry about it, just be yourself,” someone says as you step onto a podium, or through a door for an interview, convinced in the depths of your being that the one thing you must not do is to “be yourself’’.

There are some people who seem to possess a natural freedom to be themselves.

They radiate an ease and self-confidence that, in turn, allows those in their company to relax and be real.

But the truth is that most human beings often have to travel a long and hard road before they can step into a moment and be themselves.

When we start out on our journey in life, the freedom to be ourselves depends on others. It’s vital to our survival that we keep ourselves in the good grace of those responsible for our care.

In circumstances where we have cause to fear disapproval or punishment, we learn to curtail our natural instincts and adapt to what we perceive significant others expect of us. We learn to behave in a way that pleases others and we learn what it is that provokes them.

If we carry a fearfulness of other people into our adult lives we learn to disguise who we truly are and act in a way that we believe others expect of us. We may adopt an excessively “polite” compliant personality; or we may assume a cold manipulative manner because we’ve learned not to trust anyone; we hide our needs and take whatever we can get.

Adult life inevitably makes us aware that these “survival” strategies we’ve adopted are more self-defeating than self-protective. We begin to see ways in which we are not being true to ourselves.

We notice our reluctance to express our personal views for fear of losing the approval of others; we recognise a compulsive addictive quality to our lifestyle that keeps our deeper feelings at arms’ length. The longer we behave this way, the harder it gets to remember who we are. We experience a nagging emptiness inside and a certain superficiality in our relationships with others.

The danger of continuing to behave in any of these ways is that we end up living a life that is not our own. We come to a point in our lives where we see how futile this is. We reach a moment of insight – one that we may need to return to repeatedly before we are ready to act on its truth – where we want to say “yes” to the person we are, and “no” to all the ways we are not being true to ourselves.

By this time we may be so lost to ourselves it can require a dedicated effort to recover a sense of who we are. We need to allow time for this to re-emerge; we may need to find someone with whom we feel safe enough to stop running and get to know ourselves.

A sense of ourselves arises from our bodies more than from our minds. We are not abstracted spiritual beings; we are embodied, incarnate, spirits. When we are being true to ourselves, we feel it in our bones, we know it in our “gut”.

A lady I spoke to this week, described how walking through the recent snow had re-awakened in her the same feelings she had when she was a young child. As she felt the energy and freedom of that young child, she also realised that this was the same self that she had always been. She had come home to herself and she appreciated how precious a feeling that was.

It can take courage to “be yourself”. Another person described how when she finally stopped running away from herself, she reconnected with a great deal of pain and grief in her body. It wasn’t easy for her, but gradually she began to feel real and grounded and she noticed she felt calmer than she had done in a long time.

To be yourself implies that you have some sense of yourself and some comfort in being in your own company. You know what works for you and what doesn’t work for you; you know what’s important to you and what makes you feel real.

You know what moves your life forwards, and what slows you down. You recognise the ways in which you can get lost and you know what it takes for you to find your way home.

Tony Bates is founder director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (