What does it mean to be true to yourself? For me, the phrase isn’t as simple as “doing you.” It’s not about focusing on your own needs above those of others, or letting your personality run wild and free. It’s not about being sorry-not-sorry and unapologetically you.
IMO, being true to yourself is about living honestly. I realize this is a heavy topic with lots of layers, but for practical purposes I’ll reduce it down to a very simple idea: it’s about telling yourself the truth about your intentions. I find that getting your underlying motives straight for yourself — regardless of what you tell other people — can relieve a lot of unnecessary stress, which science has demonstrated occurs at both the psychological and physiological levels. If you’re not in tune with your real reasons for doing something, you’re essentially keeping a secret from yourself — and this isn’t good for your brain or your body.
Now if you’re already good at this kind of mental housekeeping, consider yourself a sacred oasis in the endless desert of bullshit agendas and ulterior motives. It’s not always easy to separate the wheat-reason from the chaff-crap, and sift out the core of why you really choose to do something. There have been plenty of situations in which I don’t even realize my intentions are muddled, but now I’m not surprised when the outcomes are less than satisfactory.
Here’s a basic example: let’s say one of your friends invites you to a very trendy birthday party at the hottest upscale bar. Like any sensible human, you’re not a fan of waiting in long lines, dealing with obnoxious social climbers, sacrificing your eardrums to absurd bass levels, and paying through the nose for fancy cocktails. But…you go anyway. Sound familiar?
So why do you go, if there are so many aspects you don’t like about this experience? One reason might be that your friend means a lot to you and you want to celebrate with them. Another might be that you’re worried about offending your friend if you don’t attend, so you go to be polite. Perhaps you’re more concerned with your image, and the impact this social gathering will have on your reputation. Maybe you just broke up with your significant other, and you want to make sure he/she sees you out and about. Or maybe you don’t want to be alone that night, and don’t like the idea of everybody hanging out without you. It could be that you just want to get rip-roaring drunk.
Of course, any combination of reasons can ultimately compel you to go to the party…but I think if you dig deeper, you’ll find there’s usually one that really hooks you by the gut. For instance, the actual reason you’re going is so you can snap pics of yourself at a bougie LA bar for Instagram.
When I’m clear on my bedrock reason for doing something, I find my mind is less cluttered. I can stop re-analyzing and over-thinking my decisions, and simply accept how I feel about them — and in turn, maybe find greater acceptance for myself and my vain, opportunistic, self-serving ways. In any case, this kind of cleaner thinking helps with everything from the tiniest interactions to bigger life decisions.
For example, I’ve harbored a lifelong passion for the biological sciences and planned on being a doctor from a very young age. And I wasn’t fucking around — I practiced suturing bananas and giving my Madeline doll more than her usual appendectomy stitches. I became a neurobiology major in college, and even fulfilled all but one of my pre-med requirements.
Halfway through school, however, I changed my mind. Medicine didn’t feel like the right path for me. Looking back, I see that my decision was mostly instinctive, but now I’m able to identify the real reasons why I had wanted to be a doctor: because it was a relatively predictable path by which, with hard work and a dose of luck, I could achieve excellence, financial stability, and conveniently leverage skills and interests that already came naturally to me.
These are by no means bad reasons! In fact, for some people, these might represent the foundational reasons to follow a certain path. The difference is that, for me, they weren’t enough to commit. They were no substitute for “because I don’t see myself pursuing anything else,” which was the real motive I was craving.
I think it’s safe to say that having a clearer agenda is helpful to your relationships with others. You remove a lot of the confusion within your own head that can lead to unintended mixed signals or passive aggressive behavior. Most people are better at smelling bullshit than you might think, and if they sense it from you it will change the way they treat you and how they think of you. Plus, who knows…maybe some day the “truths” you tell others will align with the ones you tell yourself. I’d like to think that’s my personal goal for living honestly.
As I mentioned earlier, being aware of your real, deepest motivations and intentions can profoundly impact your body and brain. Studies have shown that keeping secrets — from yourself or from others — creates a kind of neural conflict that reduces cognitive function. Generally speaking, one part of your brain wants to get the secret off your chest, while the other wants to bury it deep into your subconscious. Secret-keeping can also contribute to reduced mental and physical health — increased cortisol levels, higher levels of depression and anxiety, higher incidence of headaches and back pain — not to mention make you a target in the Dark Lord’s quest to eliminate the Potters.
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