The Skill Of Being True To Oneself

Being true to oneself is a skill. It might even be the single most important skill we can acquire. A Zen poem beautifully expresses the emotional import of being true to oneself while expressing the art of it in the simplest terms possible:

I eat when I’m hungry.
I drink when I’m thirsty.
I sleep when I’m tired.
How wonderful!

For many people, the very closest they will come to being true to themselves happens during the earliest days of their lives when they cried when they felt like crying, puked when they had to puke, slept when they were tired. Yet, those days soon ended. As they grew, they were increasingly taught to ignore themselves and their own wants and needs. To sit still when they wanted to move about. To be quiet when they wanted to yell. To learn subjects they did not want to study. To pass exams they did not want to take. To hold jobs they did not want to hold. Much of what they learned about denying themselves was necessary, of course, for them to live and function in this strange world.

Yet, it’s surprising at times to reflect on how much we unnecessarily deny ourselves. And if that is surprising, then it is absolutely astonishing to ponder all the ways we unnecessarily deny ourselves.

Sometimes those ways are obvious. I’m reminded of a friend whose father was a senior executive of an auto company. Early on, the father decided his son would become the Chief Executive Officer of a large corporation — hopefully, General Motors. From that moment forward he pressured his son to conform to the ways of an executive in training. Nothing his son wanted or did was innocent: Everything must have a purpose and that purpose must be to produce an executive. Consequently, my friend grew up deeply confused about who he was and what he wanted for himself. How could he not have grown up confused? He was never taught how to find out who he was.

Yet, many times the ways in which we learn to deny ourselves are not quite as obvious. Today, consumerism is the prime example of that. Corporations, their advertising agencies and public relations firms are constantly teaching people in consumer societies that being true to yourself means little more than buying a brand. While that is a shallow, artificial and ultimately misleading way of expressing yourself, it is the primary way in which millions — and soon billions — of humans will simultaneously “express themselves” and deny their true selves. Consumerism merely promotes narcissism, and substitutes it for self-realization and accomplishment. In that respect, it is just another way of denying your true self. And how can you be true to yourself if you deny your true self?

So, broadly speaking, we have so far discussed only one way in which being true to yourself is skillful. That is, there is skill involved in avoiding the many and various ways of unnecessarily denying ourselves.

Besides the many and various ways in which we deny ourselves, there are other challenges to being true to oneself. For instance: To be true to yourself, you must, of course, know yourself. That is an ongoing process without end. We never complete the task of knowing ourselves: We merely get better at it. Because we never complete the task, there is always some uncertainty about who we are.

Yet, many of us avoid knowing ourselves precisely because knowing ourselves involves uncertainty, and uncertainty is uncomfortable. Instead of maintaining the open mindedness to genuinely learn about ourselves as we go along in life, many of us try to fashion personal myths about ourselves that we can cling to in order to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty. “I am such and such a person”, we tell ourselves — even though we do not act that way, or at least haven’t acted that way in years. Paradoxically, to know yourself, you must be willing to live with the uncertainty of not knowing yourself.

There are many ways to learn about oneself, but perhaps the best way is to watch what one does as dispassionately as one would watch someone else’s child at play, or a stranger on the street. That requires considerable skill because it is not at all easy to dispassionately watch ourselves. Yet, that might well be the best way to learn about oneself.

Being true to oneself is not effortless. It is instead a skill that requires development. To be skillful at it, one must combine the insight to give up the many and various ways of unnecessarily denying ourselves with the will to learn about ourselves. I believe, however, that it is impossible to be genuinely happy in this life without being true to oneself. Thus, being true to oneself might indeed be the most personally valuable skill we can acquire, for it leads to genuine happiness.

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13 thoughts on “The Skill Of Being True To Oneself

  1. Thank you, Mahendra! I believe being true to oneself is among the most important things we can do in life.

    I’ve read “Atlas Shrugged”, but I’ve never had the pleasure of reading “The Fountainhead”, despite that one of my best friends has read it some dozen times — she was raised in a restrictive religious environment and found the novel immensely liberating.

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  2. Have you ever watched yourself on film? I think it can give you some of that unique, dispassionate perspective.

    I remember once in high school a couple of guys were in the library filming something for a class project. I didn’t know them. They asked me to be in the film because they needed a third person.

    During the piece I made a bunch of weird faces. I don’t know exactly I decided to make faces. I was nervous and I probably thought it would be funny.

    When we watched it back there I was making weird faces. I was embarrassed. But I also looked much different than I thought I would. I never perceive myself the way others do and I got a look at myself sort of through their eyes. It was an interesting experience despite the embarrassment.

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  3. Hi Ordinary Girl! That’s quite interesting. I’ve had similar experiences listening to recordings of my voice and hardly recognizing myself.

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  4. You have no idea how much I love this post. Thank you!

    For some of us it’s even harder to find and be ourselves because societal pressure demands we ignore what we are to conform to societal norms and dichotomies.

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  5. Thank you so much, Jamie! You are always very welcome to say such nice things about my posts! You’ve made my day!

    I think you’re spot on about society. Societies put tremendous pressure on people — on everyone — to conform to various social expectations or ideals. It is always worse, however, when you belong to some group that is targeted by some faction of society for political, religious, ideological or other reasons.

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  6. The post strikes a chord in me. Yes, I think being true to oneself is the most important thing one can do.
    This applies to blogging too. Right from the time I started I wrote about things I felt passionate about. I never wrote for hits or comments. They have come automatically and I am glad ofcourse! 🙂 At least I am happy with what I have got.

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  7. The awkwardness of being young

    ”The Notion of Being true to yourself”

    These last past month I have been struggling with finding and understanding myself. To that extend where I am wondering whether I even “like” myself. I have put every bit of me, in a psychological matter, under the microscope. This is not the greatest feeling, but I think it is every normal progressing in your teens, especially when starting your studies, where you are more exposed to new people, environments, trends, norms and maybe as well different appreciations which you are not used to. Here we are all in look for our individually identity. We all want to be unique, but still feel some kind of bonding trough different institutions or groups. But why do we choose the ones we do and how this process work? Here the pondering begins, over things or advices which people have told you trough your whole life in helping me make decisions or making us a better person.
    We often hear role models, parents or teachers for younger kids and aspirating talents proceed that the most important thing in the journey trough life’s decisions and choices is just to be true to you. If a person is able to do this, the though is that if you are a good person with good morals you will succeed in life and make the right turns in life. But is it really true?’
    Before I begin my opposing against the notion I will explain why I even bother to write about this subject. Well as I said early I was struggle ling a bit with my own identification and have tried to listen to people giving me advice and trying to direct me in the right way, and after thinking long and hard about especially this notion “of being true to oneself” it proves me that it is pretty much a pile of shit.

    My first point against the notion of staying true to oneself is that the main thought, that the person with the good will and moral will do right in life, but where does the notion actually highlight this matter of goodness and morals. It actually only demand the person “knowing yourself” and following trough with what YOU think is right, and not what is expected from you and this does defiantly not necessarily need to lead to anything good or successful.
    I can agree that it maybe will define you better as a person, and you maybe will understand who you are, but I can’t see the heroic and honourable element when people throw around this sentence.
    I can see a partial positive side of being true to oneself, that is if you really stand forward with your opinions and beliefs you show, gives you courage. But again I find myself in a dilemma, is the quality of courage that good a thing?
    The early Greek philosophers found it to be a great and honourable ability, but things change and maybe it is not always a good thing to stand out and show “your true colour”. Especially in the multicultural environment that we live in today, we are people who are learnt to respect other beliefs and people, even do they are different from our own, and that is why we don’t say anything against the them. Even with the case of liberty of speech, some things we just don’t comment even do we are against everything the opponent stands for.
    When I say this I mean it because not everybody knows what are best for themselves, and staying true to oneself could actually lead into worse events then just following the norms of society and family.
    I understand that the notion also lean against the inner personal happiness in staying true to oneself, but is this really that necessary or important? In one light I agree it makes a point ex; if you see injustice happening to others and you don’t agree, that you should react in best way possible, men referring back to the lacking of the notion’s demand of following YOUR beliefs, it is not even sure that every person would react in a good way. If that is true we quickly become very self-centred. We must remember that there are not always chooses which we want to take or even like, but we have to. In that case we have to be lying to ourselves. I sound terrible, but that is honestly a part of life. This will properly also lead to learning and evolving after experiences, and perhaps the notion of “make mistakes, and learn from them” could be replaces altogether with “all you have to do is be true to yourself”
    My last point in this little “opinion article” is also where our actually “true-you” comes from. I mean we are all just moles and clones trough over pasts, more specific, our family, our religion (which I won’t even go in on), our friends, our environment, media and society in general. Another dilemma can happen when you believe in two things, but they do not combine with your life all together, you may find yourself being torn between two essential parts of your life, with different opinions. Ex: If all your friends are going to study foreign but your family wants you to study in you home country, while you know that leaving will bring you more experience and opportunities. Which one are you to choose? Disappointing your family or always knowing what you never did. You may find both sides having pros and cons, causing you to feel even more turn apart. Advising “being true to yourself” should exactly remove this obstacles in life, but it doesn’t say anything true about what we really are or what we believe in. I don’t believe this gives a “true” us, I mean we are all just moulded and defined trough different exterior influences, and if we hopefully come to know you or me, ourselves, better, it will unlikely be in the age of 20, where new thoughts and experiences still are being provided.
    That’s it.

    Please leave comments.

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  8. Pingback: Jackie In The Year of the Comet « Café Philos: an internet café

  9. There is a teacher by the name of Prem Rawat, who is passionate about knowing the self and really fills the gaps towards getting there. being true to the self came to me in a lecture where we were asked to call on soul conscious to guide us to our true calling. i thought this is interesting … but i’m pursuing it anyway. wonderful article … good for the soul.

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  10. Very interesting subject. To know oneself is very difficult after living a life where others are always telling you what is the right decision.I am 47year old man dating a 25 year old ladie causing no problems to others. But it seems to be a problem to others, go figure.

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