Perhaps the first mistake we all make as individuals is to think that we know how to be ourselves. When we object to someone else that "nobody can be me but me" we're being entirely truthful, but we should not deduce from this that being yourself is easy.
The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, puts it beautifully:
There is a fear of letting people loose, a fear that the worst will happen once the individual enjoys carrying on like an individual. Moreover, living as the individual is thought to be the easiest thing of all, and it is the ethical that people must be coerced into becoming. I can share neither this fear nor this opinion, and for the same reason. No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.
The individual person isn't a loner survivalist cut off from society, but one being among others whom they live amidst. When we angrily desire our individuality, what we are hungering for is an escape from the ties that bind us to these other beings that intersect our lives – but this we cannot achieve except through the self-destructive intervention of breaking these ties one-by-one. Every time you resort to this drastic step, you sever yourself from another piece of your individuality, for it is all these random, circumstantial connections to other beings and things, places and people, that are the raw materials from which your life is built. Without it, you are not an individual you are nothing, both because it is these circumstances that brought you to life and kept you alive ever since, and also because who you are flows from where you are coming from.
Now it is difficult for me to speak about this question of becoming yourself, because I do not want it to sound that I am claiming that I know how to be you better than you do. Obviously, I don't even know who you are as I write this! Rather, what I am trying to do is offer a warning that being yourself is much harder than it sounds. It is always a dangerous game, giving advice, and often disastrous when advice is given in anger or haste, and the last thing I would ever want to do is interfere with anyone's exploration of how to be themselves. Besides, as Kierkegaard warns, whenever we try to tell others how to be themselves we "betray ourselves by our instantly acquired proficiency, and fail to grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path, they have to be just as much the individual and can, therefore, be in no need of guidance, least of all from anyone anxious to press their services upon others…"
However, I can see little harm in pointing out that whatever being yourself is going to entail, it might help to understand what you are...
What You Are
We tend to assume we know what kind of thing we are – yet there are many different choices for understanding what you are, all of which can work out for certain people and any of which can lead to disaster when undertaken thoughtlessly.
Take the case of disbelieving in the reality of your existence. If you come to think that you don't really exist because you are just an illusion brought about an elaborate hoax of your biology, then there is no possibility of being yourself because there is no you to be. This seems like a terrible start to any process of self discovery! Yet this self-negating way of understanding what you are could also be illuminating, as it is to Buddhists and Hindus whose conception of appearances as essentially illusionary offers a way of discovering yourself through a denial that your thoughts and desires are the most important part of your existence. In this, as in so much in life, the same assumptions can lead to radically different conclusions.
Most likely, you view yourself as a consciousness inhabiting a body, with the latter generating the former via the biology of neuron connections that grants you free will and powers of imagination. In which case, your view is not terribly different from that of people who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago, apart from the name given to the kind of thing you are. As the British philosopher Mary Midgley made clear:
When the sages of the Enlightenment deposed god and demystified Mother Nature, they did not leave us without an object of reverence. The human soul, renamed as the individual – free, autonomous, and creative – succeeded to that post, and has been confirmed in it with increased confidence ever since. Though it is not now considered immortal, it is still our pearl of great price.
The danger in buying into a purely individual conception of who you are is that it will make your existence appear to be something emanating solely from inside your mind. But that's not the case – who you are and what you are may have its locus of experience inside your mind, but it is constituted and sustained by the network of connections and situations I mentioned above, the raw materials from which you make yourself. We take great risks with our selfhood, therefore, if we think of what we are as something wholly sealed inside our heads.
Whatever way you settle upon for understanding what you are, you then have to negotiate the tension between what is apparently inside (your mind, your memories) and what is apparently outside (your social connections, your lived environment). Psychologists have finally started to come around to the idea that your mind is partly constituted by this exterior environment. Compelling recent concepts like 'enactivism' and 'embodied cognition' explore a path cleared by philosophers, especially the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger saw our situation as one of being thrown into a world, the circumstances we are born into being the very condition for discovering what we mean by ourselves.
But how do we distinguish between inside and outside? Many teenagers try to break ties with their family or the traditions of their birth culture as an act of asserting their individuality... but the rejection of these relationships becomes in itself an act of participation, participating in exile, if you will. Active rejection of family or tradition still defines the inner self in these cases precisely by that rejection. Rather than severing that connection, we simply take upon a different form of connection – that of opposition or withdrawal.
To navigate this problem requires that we have access to some concept of what is good or right for us, but this cannot simply be to act on our hunches – that would risk removing ourselves from any viable standards of judgement. Our ability to make accurate judgements depends, after all, upon our tools for thinking (our languages and terminology) which are sustained by communities of practice. It is for this reason than the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explored an "ethic of authenticity" that emerged in the last century or so:
To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.
This is part of the reason why encounters with new communities of practice can be so transformative – whether it is a religious tradition from outside of our prior experience, a community of care based around a sexuality or gender identity we had not previously considered as applying to us, a medical diagnosis that connects you to other people with whom you share a commonality of experience, or a political faction that speaks to you from outside of your prior assumptions, the discovery of who you are frequently involves a voyage outside of your mind and into revelatory new connections with others.
Yet each encounter of this kind also risks deceiving us – especially when we have actively broken ties to our previous communities. The discovery of a new network of care that we can see ourselves belonging to is alluring, because as social creatures we crave belonging even though other humans fundamentally annoy us (as the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant remarked, we are "sociably unsociable"). But this inherent appeal of belonging to something cannot resolve the question of whether the identity we are trying on is an authentic solution to the problem of ourselves. But by the same token, nobody watching 'from the outside' is going to be able to decisively determine what is and isn't authentic on our behalf. We are all inside and outside the same boats in this regard.
The danger of treating the dizzying array of possible identities presented to us as merely a buffet or a shopping catalogue to chose from is the risk of failing to notice how each encounter with every possibility of understanding ourselves is going to have an effect on who we are becoming. If we think of who we are as just a single identity where we simply have to browse the shelves until we find "the right one", we will end up reducing ourselves to a mere caricature of who we could be if we took the time to discover authentic connections with all the many facets of who we are and might be.
Paradoxically, discovering how to be yourself requires other people, both as examples to understand, and as a sounding board as we work through the challenges of understanding how the different shards of who we are fit together into a coherent whole. Even if you were "born this way", you still needed to learn about 'this way' by seeing these possibilities for existence acted out in others. Identities are sustained by their communities – and counter-intuitively, they are strengthened by the opposition of other communities that deny their legitimacy, for we are never bolder than when we feel threatened.
The problem of being yourself has no quick fix, and certainly cannot be solved by ordering your new self online. It requires you to do the work, thinking and feeling through your existing connections and communities, taking on new potential aspects of yourself with care and not rushing the process of discovery by letting our enthusiasm for the new lure us away from parts of who we are that are far more important than their humdrum familiarity might suggest.
How do you discover how to be yourself? The same way we learn anything: you watch other people become themselves, and then try to make some of what you encounter work for yourself. Sometimes it will. Sometimes it won't. Sometimes it will seem impossible that this could be you, but you may still later come to see how it all fits together. It's a mystery to solve, and only you can solve it – but you will have a much greater chance of success the more you listen to others and recognise that you can only be yourself with others. Alone, you are trapped 'inside' with your fears and your anger – only together can we find ourselves.
Prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime.
The opening image is an untitled painting by KwangHo Shin, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.