This week The New York Times published an op-ed by Adam Grant entitled, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” Grant highlights what we might call “the law of just being yourself,” the widespread cultural mandate that, when followed correctly, should guarantee both freedom and success.

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.”

il_570xN.544975981_i6vdWe 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”). […]

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 is valuable in a lot of ways, certainly in the honorable task of pulling back the curtain on the lies we tell ourselves daily; but even authenticity itself has become one such lie. When we think about our authentic selves, are we thinking about our secret urge to take the last slice of pizza, or how frequently we don’t help people in need? Or our addictions? Probably not. At best we’re probably thinking of those things that we might consider our “strengths in weakness,” how even though our rooms are a little messy we seem a little more devil-may-care because of it. We’re more likely thinking of the pieces of our identities that we can control, the tightly wound narratives of all the technically bad things about ourselves that we can actually use to our advantage.

So while we might consider our authentic selves to be messy and chaotic, rarely do we think too long about how destructive our inner monologue could actually be were it given a voice. Grant continues:

who-am-i-funny-pictures-funny-photos-funny-images-funny-pics-funny-quotes-lol-humor-funnypictures-pandora-hearts-funny-pics-adventure-time-funny-pictures-sometimes-i-wonder-my-life-funny-images-funny-A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.

“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

Without such deceit, we would find that we finally achieve both true authenticity and total unlovability.

The ultimate deceit, however, is in pretending to understand more about ourselves than we do and refusing to admit our limitations. As Walker Percy points out in Lost in the Cosmos, we understand so little about ourselves.

You have seen yourself a thousand times in the mirror, face to face. No sight is more familiar. Yet why is it that the first time you see yourself in a clothier’s triple mirror–from the side, so to speak–it comes as a shock? Or the first time you saw yourself in a home movie: were you embarrassed? What about the first time you heard your recorded voice–did your recognize it? Clearly, you should, since you’ve been hearing it all your life…

One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.


In addition to all that we don’t understand about ourselves, there’s so much that we cannot control: genetics, how we were raised, those unrememberable things our parents said to us before we were three years old that are still lodged in our subconscious today. In a lot of ways, ‘be yourself’ is a circle going nowhere. So much of myself, I cannot not be.

But what if I am unhappy with who I am, who I appear to be, and what if I do know about all those loose ends, the parts of myself I don’t like? Am I resigned to be this person forever? The culture might tell us that we can lose weight if we set our minds to it and that with a few extra deep breaths each morning we can structure our routine so that we finally have enough time to eat breakfast. And maybe this is true, but too many of us are familiar with relapse to buy it for long.

Let’s talk about horror manga for a moment–yes, those creepy cult-hit Japanese cartoons that read right to left. The Enigma of Amigara Fault was brought to my attention earlier this week, and it is not only incredibly spooky but also incredibly emotional–a powerful comment on the law of just being yourself. The faint of heart are of course advised not to read it, but if you care to, you may do so here.

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The short not-as-scary summary is that it’s the story of a fault with mysterious people-shaped holes carved into the rock face. One of the characters finds a hole shaped perfectly like him and he can’t help but climb into it, thinking that it was made for him. He falls to his doom, unable to get back out. The other characters, upon finding holes shaped like themselves–“This is my hole! It was made for me!”–are also powerless to any alternative fate.

These holes may well represent the law of being yourself, the lure of belonging to that identity that we have carved out for ourselves. Once the characters get it in their heads that these holes were made for them, seeing that they fit perfectly into them, they are powerless to do anything but crawl inside. What they need is someone to fill the Amigara Fault for them–someone who will climb into the me-shaped hole of doom. We all need someone who will be our self for us–a substitute who will take the fall when I, just by being myself, mess up irretrievably.

Christ jumps in the hole for us. He shares in our sufferings, and in turn invites us into himself. “Remain in me as I also remain in you.” By grace we are brought into the great, spacious body of Christ where we take on his identity and his righteousness without any regard for the weird and typically mean inner monologues that continue to roll out of us. Because while we hide in Christ, God–the eternal creator, ultimate judge, pure-hearted jury–looks at us and sees only his beloved son. So in there, we are accepted and forgiven for tailgating the old lady on the highway. In there, we are free to fart at the dinner table even if it is the first date (no promises that it will work out after that, though). In there, because our thoroughly unloveable selves are wholly loved by Christ, we are free once and for all to just be ourselves.

Featured image by Eugenia Loli.