I might as well be myself.
Everyone else is taken.
in New York Times Magazine, Oct. 12, 2010
I like this quote. I’d even go so far as to say that it expresses the big goal of life coaching, even the big goal of life itself. It’s also a tricky quote — kind of like talking about love or happiness or God — people can mean a lot of different things with the same words. For example, somebody might say their obnoxious or self-destructive behavior is just the result of them being themself; along the lines of “That’s who I am; so back off!” I don’t think that’s what being yourself is all about.
I think being yourself depends on self-actualization. Most psychologists use the term self-actualization to refer to realization of one’s full potential. Which just pushes the question back another step: What is full potential? One thing is clear: there’s a lot of variety among us. So, the answer to whatever is necessary to achieve one’s full potential must differ from person to person. In other words, the answer is to be found at the individual level. But here’s an apparent paradox: this is not the same as individualism. Individualism, which is more common in the US and societies that want to emulate us, sets the sole criterion of value at the individual level. Other values (for example: social, spiritual, environmental) get subjugated to the individual. But I don’t want to focus on individualism. I want to talk about a general strategy for each individual to realize his or her full potential.
This takes us back to the Oliver Stone quote. By the way, I don’t expect that Mr. Stone would agree with much of what I’m writing here (which isn’t likely to upset either of us). The following three questions are really just variations on one another: How do I just be myself? How do I realize my full potential? Who am I? You answer one of them, and the answers to the others become clear. If you like, you can meditate on it as homework.
My own belief is that, self-actualization, the realization of one’s full potential, doesn’t just happen automatically. The need for some sort of active discipline and commitment has been amply supported by all major schools of humanistic psychology, and also by all our leading spiritual traditions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism). The details vary, of course, but all agree that there is a need for critical self-awareness, both in terms of one’s behavior in the world and one’s internal thoughts and feelings. I guess this is the price we pay for having a brain bigger than a cat’s. Also, in all of these traditions, there is a need for some kind of transformation at the individual level, either as a one-time event or an ongoing process or both. Here are some sample words associated with this transformation from different traditions: salvation, atonement, enlightenment, Nirvana, self-actualization, individuation. I’m not saying these are synonyms.
For example, Karl Jung referred to the process as “individuation”. Jungians recognize that our conscious self represents only a small portion of who we are; the rest is a vast unconscious “ocean”, with both personal and collective components. An important part of individuation is the discovery and acceptance of critical parts of this unconscious material. Some of it is a “Shadow” complex of parts of ourselves that might seem quite different from the conscious persona we habitually experience. The Shadow isn’t all bad stuff that we have repressed; some of it is good stuff that doesn’t fit with a negative self-image we might be carrying around. Other fascinating unconscious complexes are the “feminine” side of a man’s self (the Anima) and the “masculine” side of a woman’s self (the Animus). Individuation involves two parallel and ongoing processes: increasing awareness of the nature of our personal internal complexes and increasing integration among them under the direction of the conscious self. It’s far more than an “academic” exercise. Along the way, we see how many of our challenging interactions with others may in fact by internal dramas that we are projecting out into the world (i.e. it really is about you!). Typically individuation involves increasing self-assurance, peace of mind and constructive engagement with others and the universe. In other words, the outcome of self-actualization through individuation is far from the narrowly selfish idea of individualism.
The inner work to support the individuation process can involve dream analysis, active imagination, artistic creation, spiritual exercises, depth psychotherapy, and the study of mythology and religious traditions around the world. If this sounds like a tall order, it is worth realizing that a full blown commitment to the Christian path or the Zen path is just as intense. In my opinion, these three aren’t really incompatible with one another. That compatibility might be true of others, too, but I don’t know enough about them.
Wait a minute! Am I saying that a big lifelong commitment to this kind of “inner work” is necessary to “just be yourself”? I think the answer is necessarily personal. In my own life, much as I often try to avoid it, I keep running into a “yes” answer. Part of the reason is no doubt because I’m a little more critical of my own obnoxious behavior than say Oliver Stone is. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not sometimes just as obnoxious. I salute anyone who is getting all they want from life, no matter how. One other thing: I love my life!