The Challenge: Sometimes, the phrase, “Just be yourself,” leaves us feeling stuck.
The Science: We grow by stretching beyond what we consider our core selves.
The Solution: Act as if you already have the qualities you want to develop in yourself.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be — Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night (1966). Your friends advise you to “just be yourself,” and self-help columns preach authenticity — yet your boss expects you to step up to cover different roles, and your partner wants you to change how you communicate. You feel stuck. No worries: like many others, you might have fallen into the authenticity trap.
But how can authenticity be a trap in some situations?
- “Being authentic” can be an excuse to remain in your comfort zone.
Growing implies pushing the envelope and stretching our sense of self. For example, I need to work on being more social. That does not feel natural because I am an introvert, and that is my authentic self. Yet, if I want to keep growing, I need to stretch myself, and every once in a while, I need to renounce the safe company of books to engage with other people.
- Which is our authentic self? We all express different identities in different situations throughout the day.
For example, you might be a demanding boss but an accommodating mother, a good team player in the soccer team, but less so at work. Moreover, research shows that our personality traits are both domain-general and domain-specific, which means that you have some general characteristics that get more or less expressed in different contexts — that is why Tiger Woods is the epitome of self-control and work ethic in the professional domain but definitely not so in other domains.
- “Being authentic” also implies we know what makes us tick.
But study after study shows that in many cases, we are no better than a stranger in predicting how we will feel or in figuring out why we do what we do (for an informative and engaging summary, check out Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert’s best-seller “Stumbling on Happiness.” We know what we feel or think (the outcome), but we do not automatically know how or why we came to feel or think that way (the process). For example, strangers are just as accurate as you are in predicting what affects your mood — despite all the specific information you have about yourself!
So, does that mean we are condemned to be strangers to ourselves? Not necessarily. According to a line of research started in 1972 by Daryl Bem, we know who we are by looking at what we do. Or as E.M. Forster would say: “How can I tell what I think ‘till I see what I say?” And this principle of outsight (as opposed to insight) suggests an elegant way out of the authenticity trap…
To be good, do good
change the way you act, and the rest will follow. For example, a successful program to prevent teen pregnancy like Teen Outreach does not directly try to educate teens about risky behaviors, but rather, it engages students in supervised volunteer work of their choice. So, students first change their behaviors and act as competent adults, and then their views about who they are following.
To stretch yourself, act “as if.”
If you want to become courageous, act as if you are courageous. If you want to be kind, act as if you are kind. In time, you will be (and see yourself as) courageous and kind. Research bears this out — for example, introverts can enjoy all the benefits of being an extrovert simply by acting as one. This works in relationships, too. If you want to go along with someone, act as if you like that person. You will be surprised by how little it takes to start a virtuous circle of mutual liking!
So what are you waiting for? Do not just be yourself; act as if you were your ideal self!