In my lifetime, I have read an immense number of self-help books, and I have come across the sensible advice again and again to "be yourself." It's the only way you're ever going to be happy, it's the only way you can really find your way in the world, it's more honest, it has more integrity, it will help you be more creative and successful, it will give you more energy, your relationships will work a lot better, and it will rid you of a lot of stress.
But I've never seen anywhere any instructions on how to be yourself. And if you and I were in a conversation, and I asked you to "be yourself," would you know how to do it? What if I gave you ten thousand dollars if you could really be yourself for the next three hours? Would you know what to do?
Do you know why it's so difficult to instruct someone in the art of being themselves? Because it's not something you can do with action. It's not something you can do by trying. It's not something you can do by restraining yourself. You can't do it with any effort.
In fact, if you are forcing yourself or restraining yourself, you are not being yourself. If you are trying, you are not being yourself. Even if you are trying to be yourself, you're not being yourself. And if you try harder, you're really not being yourself.
Being yourself is the absence of something, not the presence of something. It is the absence of forcing and restraining yourself. If you force yourself to smile when you don't feel like smiling, you're not being yourself. If you restrain yourself from crying when you feel like crying, you're not being yourself.
You are not being yourself if you're trying. Trying is forcing or restraining.
So how can you "be yourself?" Even though it is a complete lack of trying, you actually have to learn how to be yourself because you've been urged, coerced, prodded, teased, ridiculed, and punished for being yourself your whole life. The world has trained you to avoid being yourself, so it's not going to be easy. And yet, in many ways it's the easiest thing there is, because it is a total lack of trying.
So how do you learn? By catching yourself forcing yourself and restraining yourself. By noticing when you're trying. And then letting it go, easing off on the trying, and just relaxing into whatever is really true for you right at that moment.
In other words, you learn to be yourself by being on the lookout for that feeling of forcing and the feeling of restraining. Tune yourself into that feeling. Become acutely familiar with what it feels like. And watch for it. Then when you notice yourself forcing or restraining, ease up on the forcing or restraining.
It is a subtle process, but a very concrete one. The feeling of trying (forcing or restraining) is a specific, easily-identifiable feeling. Once you're got your reticular activator set for it, you'll begin to notice it happening all the time.
And when you notice it, resist the temptation to try. Resist your habitual urge to force yourself or restrain yourself.
Step by step you will become more and more "just yourself." You will become more natural, more at ease, more relaxed, more open, more honest. Your relationships will become a lot more enjoyable. Your whole life will become more enjoyable.
I'd like to add a warning to this rosy picture, however. There are places and times when it is not a good idea to be yourself. For example, let's say you work for customer service and a customer has just made you angry. It is probably a good idea in those circumstances to restrain yourself from being yourself and doing what you honestly feel like doing. Your employer is paying you to do a job. Forcing and restraining yourself is work, and in this case, it's one of the things you are being paid to do.
You can figure out the details for your own situations, but I wanted to point out that it is entirely fitting and appropriate to not be yourself in some situations. Figure out what those are, and explore being yourself in every other area of your life.
So let me summarize. This is how you can follow the excellent advice to "be yourself:" Catch yourself trying. You can't "be yourself" by an act. Rather, you detect forcing and restraining and stop doing it. The feeling of forcing and restraining is the feeling of not being yourself.
You can't try to be yourself. As soon as you're trying, you're not yourself. Being yourself is not an effort. It can't by done by trying. And especially not by trying harder. It is more like resisting temptation. Remember that, and you're well on your way to enjoying the freedom and power of being yourself.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.