What does it mean to “be yourself”?

“Be yourself” is good advice, given the fact that it is impossible to do otherwise — everyone else is already taken, and you are, by definition, yourself, regardless of how you change over time or reflect qualities of others. Of course, the expression is meant to suggest that one should strive for authenticity and allow the natural personality to shine, rather than obscure one’s way of being for fear of social scrutiny. This is also good advice. 

Still, I feel that there is a tension between this sentiment and the reality that no one is free from the influence of others. The person that you are is at least partially composed of fragments of those you have met, known or to whom you have been exposed. That no individual is perfectly unique is not a troublesome thought for me, but rather a comfort, even a compliment. I, and likely everyone alive, have had the pleasure of knowing so many wonderful people, and I am honored to think that I share in any degree those qualities that I find wonderful — intelligence, kindness, determination, open-mindedness, thoughtfulness and many more. 

We learn how to be people from other people: we observe the behaviors of others, we react and reflect, we model their behavior, we accept or reject values and correlative actions motivated by those values and somewhere along the way, we grow out from the flabby, crawling animalism of infancy and into relative independence, maturity and adulthood. Somewhere along this journey, we develop and curate personalities we would like to think of as unique. 

Sure, everyone is unique (and no, this does not make everyone collectively less unique), but everyone is also connected. I am generally hesitant to make sweeping, universal claims about human nature proper, but it seems nearly self-evident that social interdependence is one of the most fundamental characteristics of human life in the anthropocene.

The boundaries of the self are permeable and nebulous, as well as ever-evolving. Western hyperindividualism and its predominance as a social doctrine have led many to believe that people are capable of rationally constructing identity without any reference to others at all and that one’s ideas are the product of their mind alone. In reality, however, searching for meaning, peace, happiness or whatever you would like to call it would be an utter shot in the dark if we were not blessed with the ability to communicate with others and make use of their ideas as stimulus for our own, like kindling without which one’s campfire would never burn. 

The ability to communicate with others, though worthwhile and often delightful, is not a clear, simple task. I know I struggle to stay in touch with others, to convey my thoughts in a fashion that seems to capture whatever I want to express and to understand why people say the things they say. I am old-fashioned; I like snail mail and am very easily overwhelmed by notifications and other forms of communication involving mediation of human thought through screens and pixels. For these reasons, I  have a tendency to become somewhat of a hermit when I am faced with stress. Alone time is immensely valuable and comforting to me, and I am entitled to making time and space to turn my attention away from others and toward myself as needed. Still, I find that when I am in my hermit eras, I yearn for the back-and-forth noggin content sharing that is dialogue. 

I am only me; I like to think that I am reasonably good at thinking, but without others around, my ideas are far more likely to settle into an inert state. Exposing my ideas to the criticism and praise of others is how I strengthen the foundations of thought from which I form my beliefs, desires and ideals. Through this process, what was a feeble modicum of cognition grows and expands exponentially larger than isolation and independent reflection could have ever allowed. 

Although I have thus far focused on the significance of interpersonal interaction to the development of ideas, people also depend on one another materially and physically. The mere existence of children, the elderly and people with disabilities, undermines the possibility of living in total isolation, both for those who need others to take care of them and for those who are in a position to care for those in need. There are still more forms of connection I could discuss, but my point is that I cannot underscore enough how deeply, fundamentally and inescapably connected people are. 

The more we spend time with others, the more likely it is that elements of their personalities will rub off on us. Since we cannot reasonably avoid others, we should not cling to some threadbare conception of the self as a cohesive and unique fabric whose every fiber was meticulously woven together by an individual. We are rather more like rag rugs: cloth scraps taken from many different items, torn to pieces and tied together into a unique assortment composed of recycled fragments. 

I for one am grateful for the great permeability of the self — I certainly would not be as cool as I believe myself to be if I had never had significant help from others.