Have you seen the greeting card that quotes Oscar Wilde declaring: Be yourself: everyone else is taken? How is it that something that sounds so obvious can actually be difficult and confusing? First of all, “being yourself” requires self-awareness. One must have answers to questions like, “What do I feel?” and “What do I believe?” Frequently this is a tall order. Furthermore, “being yourself” means expressing your feelings and thoughts even when your listeners might object to what you are saying.
We all want to be ourselves, but at the same time we are wired from birth to connect with others. As newborns, our very survival depends on attaching to our caregivers. Much is written about the importance of social connections clear across the life span into advanced age. Thus, we must have social connections and find ways to express our individuality. Though it may be subtle or not so subtle, in all relationships there is a constant striving to achieve a comfortable emotional balance between these two polarities: closeness and distance, togetherness and individuality. This is one of the challenges for newlywed couples as they transition from single to couple living. Spouses must learn how to honor these opposing needs for each partner.
Interestingly, too much of a good thing produces a lot of anxiety. We want to be close to another, but too much “sameness between us” is uninteresting, stifling, and ultimately very uncomfortable. Likewise, too much distance and independence leaves us feeling alone and uncared about.
So what are we to do?
Psychiatrist Murray Bowen was very articulate about this human dilemma. First, one must be clear about one’s thoughts and feelings. Then in giving this information to another, speak “without becoming defensive or attacking the other.” So in struggling with what to say in a difficult situation, ask yourself, “How can I state my position without defensiveness or attacking others and what would that look like?”
It’s easy to “be yourself” in a calm environment when there is a lot of agreement. It’s a lot more challenging to hang on to your position when emotions are high. The benefit of achieving this goal is self-respect and the respect of others.