Is ‘Just Be Yourself’ Really Terrible Advice?

The New York Times has had some great opinion pieces lately, providing lots of opportunities to think deeply about some of our ingrained cultural mindsets. “Just be yourself” was brought up this week by writer Adam Grant. He says this:

“We are in the Age of Authenticity, where “be yourself” is the defining advice in life, love and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In university commencement speeches, “Be true to yourself” is one of the most common themes (behind “Expand your horizons,” and just ahead of “Never give up”).

“I certainly had no idea that being your authentic self could get you as rich as I have become,” Oprah Winfrey said jokingly a few years ago. “If I’d known that, I’d have tried it a lot earlier.”

But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”

Authenticity appeals to so many of us because, as Kevin DeYoung writes, “it seems a welcome antidote to calculating, self-righteous priggishness… Which is not all bad. Jesus spared no verbal expense in rebuking the hypocrites of his day (Matt. 23). It’s good to tell the truth. It’s good to be consistent. It’s even good, as a general rule, to learn to be comfortable in your own skin, to refrain from trying to be someone or something you’re not.” No one wants to be around the individual who instead of being okay with their own personality, is always trying to be someone else. But maybe there are veiled hazards that come with living in our Age of Authenticity.

One of the main “hero narratives” of our culture – the one that everybody accepts as truth, according to Tim Keller – is to look deep inside yourself to overcome all else.

But does identity really work that way? I hear all the time from college students that they just want to “find out who I am.” Does looking inside ourselves at our authentic selves help us to figure out who we really are?

It doesn’t take long to figure out that our “authentic selves” will inevitably fail us. If we should be able to look insides ourselves and see our deep feelings, our deep desires, and be able to realize them, we will eventually find out not all of those things can be realized. What happens when our deepest desire to get married isn’t met? What happens when our dream of having four of our own children is squashed? What happens when our authentic selves don’t deliver the happiness we expect it to?

So if we shouldn’t strive to be “authentic”, what should we be striving for? Grant offers up sincerity as our ideal: “Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them… [we should] start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be. Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.”

I’m not sure this is the answer (after all, that exterior presentation we spend enormous amounts of time cultivating can fail us just as much) , but I think Grant is on to something. If we claim to be Christians, then we are called to follow Christ. Jesus wasn’t focused on identity politics or authenticity so much as character and holiness. He calls us not to be true to ourselves, but to be true to him in us, to die to our own vices and sins of darkness and walk in the “virtues of Christ”. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to discover our real selves, but are told to walk in the reality of truth with Jesus – even if we feel something different than that truth. Let’s look outside of ourselves to Christ, who has given us his identity in exchange for our old selves.

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