By SANDY CLARKE
We have all heard pieces of advice such as honesty is the best policy, and that being ourselves is the key to successful relationships.
But if ever a friend asked you, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” or if you’ve gone the extra mile to hide your big bag of crazy during a first date, you’ll know that such advice can often be as impractical as it sounds.
With regard to being ourselves, the debate rolls on when it comes to figuring out where our ego ends and our authentic self begins. There are few more important discussions when it comes to networking and building relationships; after all, their success depends on the quality of connection that’s made.
The self: Ideal, ought and actual
To begin with, we have to decide what it means to “be yourself.” In psychology, self-discrepancy theory describes the relationship between our three selves: the “ideal” self is who we aspire to be; the “ought” self is how we understand what others think we should be; and then there’s our “actual” self – the self whose attainments, behaviours and development is regularly at odds with what we and others might otherwise expect.
In spiritual practice, we go deeper still. What is our “true” self? While psychology looks at the actual self in terms of conventional reality (e.g. the choices we make, behaviours we espouse, how we navigate our world), from a spiritual perspective, this isn’t our “actual” self at all. Rather, it’s one that’s constructed through conditioning and shaped over time by our upbringing, environments, circumstances, and other key influences that have worked to mould the person we are today.
Our true self, from a spiritual perspective, is what lies underneath all that conditioning and it’s our job to chip away at the superficial qualities and traits that combine to define who we are. But this involves a lifetime’s commitment consisting of years of contemplation, prayer, meditation, reflection, and time spent in solitude.
If you’ve reached this point without feeling mentally exhausted, please let me know your secret. No doubt you’ll now have realised why “be yourself” is simplistic and unhelpful advice, mainly because most of us have no idea who we are exactly.
Recently, Adam Grant – professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania – wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, giving his views on why “be yourself” is terrible advice. He talked about how, in truth, no one wants to see our authentic self – rather, people want us to be sincere and to live up to what we say.
Professor Grant’s piece received some responses, including one writer who wrote, “My true self is kind. I am all about ease, joy, happiness and fun.” While I don’t doubt this is how she perceives or strives for herself to be, I wonder whether it’s an accurate assessment. I doubt any of us would describe ourselves as being awful and all about hardship, despair, sadness and boredom.
Nevertheless, the discussion on being true to ourselves and what that actually means is an important one to have, as it helps us to refine our understanding of human nature and how we can work to further develop its positive traits and chip away at the negative aspects.
Sincerity, the secret to success?
But, sticking with conventional reality for now, what is the best way to build relationships, establish rapport and successfully engage others?
In his article, Professor Grant writes, “Decades ago, the literary critic, Lionel Trilling gave us an answer that sounds very old-fashioned to our authentic ears: sincerity.
“Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be. Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.”
Think for a moment how you engage with people. If you have a partner, how do you interact with them? Is it different to how you engage with co-workers? Are your interactions with co-workers different to how you connect with your parents? What about interacting with children or pets?
We tend to adapt ourselves depending on the situation and who we’re addressing. For example, I might tell my wife about the tough day I’ve had and ask her to put the kettle on. But it’s highly unlikely – however tough my day’s been – that I’d conduct myself in the same way were if I were in the presence of The Queen or, say, Peter Dinklage.
With this in mind, we might then say that the better advice is to, “Be your best self in a manner appropriate to the situation.”
This doesn’t mean adopting a false self, but rather to recognise that, just as we dress appropriately for different occasions, we are required to act appropriately depending on the people we encounter.
Nor does it mean that, in being our best selves, we are less respectful to some people over others. The reason I can ask my wife, and not the Queen, to put the kettle on while we each talk about our day is due to the difference in terms of familiarity, rapport and comfort; the degrees of which dictate the level and the substance of interaction. All relationships have this in common.
Bringing it all together
In being our best selves, appropriate to each situation, we are enabled to build solid relationships and strengthen connections. It also helps us to grow and develop further in a way that “being yourself” prohibits, as it implies an inability or unwillingness to adapt whenever it’s called upon for us to do so.
By conducting ourselves with sincerity, we get our heads around how we can best navigate our world as we see that communication and connections are less about ourselves and more about serving others so that we might benefit them and in turn learn more about who we are.