People lock into their own narratives. Their older brother was the favorite. Their first boyfriend was the love of their life. Their parents were not supportive.
These stories are told and retold so many times that they become canon. All too often a person’s sense of worth and identity is based on these beliefs, which do not take into account nuance and detail. Letting go of the established stories we tell about ourselves allows us to decide who we want to be instead of letting the past dictate who we are today and who we will become in the future. Breaking free from the idea of a fixed self can set us free in ways big and small.
Who we think we are can get in the way of growth and vitality. Rather than to be their “true selves,” which tends to narrow perspective and promote rigidity, I encourage patients to expand how they think about themselves by behaving in ways that may seem out of character.
“I’m a ‘yes’ person,” a patient once told me. Being nice was very important to her, and she was known by her friends to be agreeable and accommodating. Because of this reputation, though, she sometimes felt used and taken advantage of but was afraid to behave any differently. “Being nice is who I am,” she insisted, while deep down, she believed that her “niceness” was the only reason people liked her. I asked her to consider the difference between what it means to be nice and what it means to be kind. We talked about how “nice” is about being a pushover, never saying what you think, and doing what other people want you to do, while “kind” is about staying true to your values and exhibiting the grace and strength to express yourself.
A few days later, a co-worker asked her to stay late to finish a PowerPoint presentation. In the past, she would have said yes, even if she had plans. This time she decided to be un-her and declined. Acting out of character enabled her to rise out of the confines of her limited self and helped her to find her voice, to feel more confident, to be a better version of herself.
I don’t think of this technique as denying or disrespecting who someone is or asking a person to be inauthentic. On the contrary, it helps that person get closer to the version of themselves they would like to be. Is she being inauthentic? Technically, yes. Still, being a well-meaning phony can sometimes be the key to self-transformation.
What does it really mean to be authentic, anyway? Scientists from U.C.–Berkeley asked people what was more important for feeling authentic in a romantic relationship—being your actual self, or being your ideal self. The majority assumed that being your true self was the key to an authentic relationship. But research tells a different story. Authenticity in a relationship is the result of feeling you can be your best self, not your actual self.
Doing things that are “un-you” can free you from behaving in a way that may be comfortable but stifling. Disagreeable people feel better when they are more considerate. People who are careless feel better when they are conscientious. Shy people feel better when they act more outgoing. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky demonstrated that when introverts intentionally engage in extroverted behaviors, such as being assertive, talkative, and spontaneous, they can increase feelings of connectedness and gain an overall boost in well-being.
In my experience, people don’t feel like they are “faking it” when they are enacting behaviors they value. On the contrary, most say it is at these times that they feel most true to themselves. Embodying traits you value can enhance positive mental health. When patients tell me, “I am who I am,” my goal is to encourage them to understand that they are so much more.
Adapted from EVERYDAY VITALITY by Samantha Boardman, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Samantha Boardman.