Monday, April 21, 2014

Just Be Yourself?

I've seen a lot of posts lately that boil down to lists of dating advice that "have to go." Artificial times seem to be high on all these lists, and even making a suggestion that they might be helpful sometimes doesn't go over well. Overall, I tend to agree with much of what's being offered on these lists. At the same time, they often feel like shooting fish in a barrel.

However, I found this point in DrNerdLove's current post about the advice to "Just be yourself" pretty interesting.

The problem however, is that “just be yourself” is inherently bad advice. Being authentic is one thing – that’s something we all should be doing. But “just be yourself” is about not changing, period. And sometimes, quite frankly, being yourself is the problem. It doesn’t do you any good to “just be yourself” if you suck. Being told to be yourself means refusing to change, even when your current self is what’s holding you back. I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve known whose “bad luck” with women boiled down to something about themselves – something that was well within their ability to fix.When I’d point out their issue: a shitty attitude towards women, an unrealistic expectation of relationships or just plain being a selfish asshole – they’d come back with “well, women should love me for who I am. I’m not going to change just to please people.” Then with their very next breath1 they’re back to wondering why women don’t like them.

One thing I've grown to have disdain for is how much of the general dating advice scene is about how everyone is so dysfunctional and how the path to finding love is either one of learning how to navigate through all sorts of horrible, predatory people, or it's about following someone else's supposedly "foolproof" plan. There's something really disempowering about all of that.

When I see people acting really resistant to ideas and suggestions that might actually be quite helpful, I'm reminded of my own resistance back when I was in the dating market. It's not just whether something is "good advice," but it's also how it's delivered that matters. In fact, I'd say how it's delivered matters more. And also timing.

DrNerdLove's comments point to a fair amount of this. First off, he's absolutely right that giving that kind of advice to some people is awful. Because it just reinforces their sense that the problems are outside of themselves. Secondly, his tally of men in this case, demonstrates that timing matters a lot. Even if he gave the opposite advice to these guys that they needed to drop the shitty attitude and change their behavior, odds are plenty of them wouldn't have listened. In these cases, "Just be yourself" is reinforcing what they already believe. Namely, that they're trying to navigate through a field of landmines, and mostly are getting explosions from messed up people in return.

Overall, I think DrNerdLove is rejecting "Just be yourself" because it's too vague. Which is fair. However, the subtle distinction he makes between that phrase and "Just be authentic" is probably lost on many people. I'm not really convinced that using the word "authentic" would trigger self reflection on ways someone is acting poorly or negatively. He needed an entire post himself to unpack the difference, which to me suggests it's not the particular phrase, but more that advice needs to be more specific and detailed as a general rule.

So, more to the point from my end, the biggest problem with "Just be yourself" is that who you are in the world isn't static. Telling people to just be themselves tends to reinforce the stories they have about themselves, regardless of whether they're positive or negative. Which in my opinion, isn't terribly helpful to entering into a dating situation with fresh eyes and openness not only about another person, but also who you are, and how you might be in a partnership with someone.

Along these lines, DrNerdLove says in his second post:

he concept of “You” is far more fluid and malleable than most people would think. We change who we are – who we truly are – all the time; after all, we’re not the same person we were when we were 10, or 20, or 30. We are constantly being shaped and moulded by our experiences, our beliefs, even our day-to-day experiences. A bad break up can leave us bitter and resentful and mistrustful of others while a sudden shock – a near-death experience for example – can inspire us to live life to the fullest instead of taking everything for granted.

Of course, none of this means that the goal is become chameleon-like. There are plenty of things about you that aren't going to rapidly change. Furthermore, those people who do rapidly change to try and fit in and be loved all the time are pretty awful partners. And sometimes damned scary in fact.

However, it's really helpful in my view to learn to hold everything you think about who you are and what you're about in the world a little more lightly. Because holding on too tightly to self-identity is probably one of the biggest roadblocks in dating and relationships. Which is why even if someone needs to be more authentically themselves while dating, "just be yourself" isn't terribly helpful advice.


  1. OK as usual, I'll start :) I think "just be yourself" is not all bad. What I mean by it is, yes, personal growth and adjusting to your partner's needs and working on yourself so you're not a real-life Dr. House are all good things. But there can be too much change. When we find ourselves trying to become something we're not, just because that's what our partner wants that from us, then I think it's time to walk. Same with the situation when our partner wants us to act counter to our core values. We're not going to succeed with that big of a personal change anyway - we'll just make ourselves profoundly unhappy in the process - so why even bother trying.

  2. Yes, I totally agree that "too much change" isn't helpful. It's the other extreme. It's being a chameleon.

    In any healthy situation, it seems like something more of a balance between small changes (and perhaps a few large ones) and "being your authentic self" is the norm. Those who are highly resistant to changing anything about their lives tend to be horribly difficult partners. And those who are constantly changing, people pleasing, and being in the wind are often totally miserable in the process.

    The thing is, what you or I or someone else in particular needs to focus more on at a given time depends on what we need - and the relationship we're in (or developing) needs. So, the balance point might move around.

    But I think that what the Doc and I are getting at is the simplistic advice that gets attached to "Just be yourself" - things like show them who you really are, put your best foot forward, don't worry about rejection, you're perfect just the way you are, etc. is cliched, and too vague to get at what's actually hindering someone from being authentic on dates or in their relationship.

    1. As I date and meet new people, I've started paying attention to how easy it is for me to be more or less myself around the other person. Adjusting a bit to the other person, showing common courtesy etc. is one thing, twisting yourself into something you're not is another. Likewise I try to gauge how easy it is for them to be themselves around me. I think it is really a big part of determining who is a good match for you and who isn't. When I met my last ex, I liked and admired him as a person, there was a physical connection, tons of common interests... But I always had that feeling that it made him uncomfortable, frightened, or in some cases unhappy when I was my real self around him. And I don't think I ever saw his real self at all. On the surface we were a great match (99% on OKC... I didn't even know it was possible). He always talked about how good we were together. But in reality our being "good together" was contingent on both of us pretending to be something we're not. That's what I'll be trying to avoid in the next relationship. So I guess what I'm saying here, while totally letting yourself go in front of another person isn't a good idea, a bit of being yourself might be a good test for whether you two really are a match.

      You're right though, that people change and develop with time, and so does the relationship. It's really impossible to tell where everyone will be in the long term, and whether they'll be a match still. Which is sad, since long term is what we all are hoping for.

  3. "As I date and meet new people, I've started paying attention to how easy it is for me to be more or less myself around the other person. Adjusting a bit to the other person, showing common courtesy etc. is one thing, twisting yourself into something you're not is another. Likewise I try to gauge how easy it is for them to be themselves around me. I think it is really a big part of determining who is a good match for you and who isn't."

    See, I totally agree with this. And I also think it's really wise to be paying attention to it right from the beginning. Even though we're often putting on a bit of an act early on, there are different levels of that depending upon how well you actually connect.

    But there's a difference between actually just being yourself because of a good connection, and putting in a bunch of effort based on someone else's advice.

    Even if someone is shy, and has to put a little more effort in to show themselves, it still tends to be a more natural unfolding if things are right. They aren't thinking a lot about what exactly to show, and what to hide, or what advice they read about how to be more of yourself on a first or second date. Maybe a little bit, but not that much.

    I think it's kind of easy, actually, for "being yourself" to become another calculated mask on early dates. Some of the Game/PUA types advocate for a mixture of "tactics" and being yourself, for example. There's calculated effort put in to offer just enough "real me" to offset the contrived actions. On the flip side, someone who's shy might be deliberately considering which bits to share that make them shine more, based on advice they read. "If you really like movies, share something about that with your date." And they do, which might be a pathway to a greater connection, or it might be a way to keep things superficial and safe.

    When I was in my 20s, I often would steer conversations with dates to music because I knew a lot about it, and it was a safe place to go in conversation. Sure, I was being myself to a certain extent because I loved music, and could be passionate about it with them. But it also was a hideout. The same was true of books I had read. I could run with these two topics, and have lots of interesting conversations with dates. In fact, it sometimes almost seemed like we had a really great, natural connection unfolding. Except that little of personal, intimate substance was being shared. And there wasn't much diversity in topics or tone either.

    I tend to think what you're talking about in the paragraph I quoted is something that can't really be coached or manipulated. It requires a bit of willingness to be vulnerable, but mostly it just happens because you feel at ease with each other enough to let some of who you actually are just come out.

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  5. Be Yourself is great but life doesn't allow us to be ourselves everytime :'( we have to change for world, time and situations work like cruel enemies and we have to change :'(

    But over all great post!

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