Remaining True to Oneself
January 20, 2012 4:14 PM   Subscribe

What does it mean to remain "true to yourself?"

Someone asked me this recently, and I couldn't really find an answer. I realized I actually don't know what it means when people say this, and I'm seeking an explanation of what this means. So, some questions, if someone could please fill me in.

1) I understand the idea of doing something because one believes it is right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful. But how does one come across the notion that something is "true to oneself?" Example: if you go by this dictum, what are the internal processes you have? (Is it simply a "gut feeling?" What thoughts are people having when they decide to do something that is "true to themselves?")

2) Some culture-related questions:
a) Is this a concept that exists in cultures outside of the modern day West?
b) Is this a relatively new expression? Do people older than the boomer generation use this expression? I know the dictum "know thyself" was used among the Ancient greeks. "Be true to yourself..." not so sure.
c) Is there another way people phrase it that is more commonly used?

3) Do most people live by this principle? How does it differ from "doing what you want?"

Any answers/insight would be helpful. Thanks. Sorry for the rambling.
posted by The ____ of Justice to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
To me, it means to stick to your personal values and beliefs, no matter what the situation. Say you have the opportunity to "pad an invoice" on a large account that would almost certainly go unnoticed, but such behavior would go completely contrary to your personal code of ethics, so you do not. Or you're walking down the street with a group of people, one of them starts making fun of someone, perhaps with a tasteless joke, and the others join in. But instead of going with the crowd, you call 'em out on their behavior, even at the risk of negative fallout or being shunned by the group, because it's the right thing to do. Maybe a cashier gives you incorrect change in your favor. It'd be easy to just think "hey, free money!" and pocket it, but instead you politely point it out and give back the surplus. Not just because it's the honest thing to do, but because at the end of the day when the cash drawer comes up short, someone's going to be in hot water for it. Basically, I guess to me it's doing the right thing, even when it's the harder path, or even when you could get away with doing something else.
posted by xedrik at 4:21 PM on January 20, 2012

Generally it means you stick to your principles even when someone else is giving you reason to bend them. Peer pressure, fame, money are all reasons people bend their principles.

Of course before you can do this you must first *have* principles, so this implies some level of self-knowledge and maturity.
posted by kindall at 4:31 PM on January 20, 2012

In re: to 2b), "To thine own self be true..." is a rather famous quotation from Shakespeare.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:32 PM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's integrity. It's knowing what you believe to be "right" and doing it even when doing otherwise would be beneficial. It's sticking to one's principles in the face of adversity or even if it means losing something (friends, status, money, comfort).
posted by marimeko at 4:33 PM on January 20, 2012

How does it differ from "doing what you want?

"Doing what you want" connotes capriciousness, or some amount of thoughtlessness, as if you don't really have a plan for how you live your life, you just do whatever seems right at the moment. (Although I suppose if what you want is to live according to your guiding principles, there would be no difference; but that's not the implication of that phrase).

"Being true to oneself" implies sufficient introspection to have some sort of grip on who you really are, and what principles guide you. Acting according to those known principles would be being true to yourself.

As an aside, I don't know that being true to oneself means you act in a particular good or right way.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:41 PM on January 20, 2012

I think it means living/making decisions in a way that is congruent with your deeply held beliefs or values. It doesn't necessarily imply doing the "right" thing. You may deeply believe something I feel is wrong or immoral, but if you acted in accordance with that deeply held belief, you would be true to yourself.
posted by pupstocks at 4:43 PM on January 20, 2012

I agree with a lot of what's being said so far. My personal read on "being true to yourself" is that it can be a kind of wishy-washy and flimsy cultural excuse for being selfish, but I think the core truth of it is more than that. While always "doing what you want" is selfish, if you value interdependence/community/others in your heart as of importance, being true to yourself actually means that sometimes you will negate your desires for a greater moral or social good.

In my life, this just means that I stick to the moral and ethical standards I hold (I am religious, and also a geeky type who makes things like personal mission statements every so often, so YMMV). I don't do things that give me that gut feeling that I am foregoing my deepest and most dearly held convictions, core beliefs, and moral attitudes. This works best for someone who has a healthy sense of self and a fine-tuned set of morals that are perhaps examined from an intellectual and practical POV from time to time for assessment. I also think that being willing to re-assess who you are and what you believe is part of being successful as a human being, but that's kind of beyond the scope of what you are asking.
posted by araisingirl at 4:48 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure the phrase comes from Shakespeare. Polonius' advice to his son Laertes in Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
According to this the original meaning was that Laertes should make sure to look after his own problems first, so he would be in a position to treat other people well in turn.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 4:52 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

It doesn't mean anything. The original quote, from Hamlet, is part of a long string of platitudes given by Polonius to his son Laertes before he left on a trip. The whole scene is poking fun at old dodgers who spout empty banalities for lack of true wisdom.

"Know Thyself," of course, is intentionally vague.
posted by absalom at 4:52 PM on January 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think it means not shifting your values in accordance with those of your companions, prevailing political trends or fashions. Integrity is doing what you said you would do.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:55 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aside from moral questions (padding an invoice, speaking up for what's right even if it isn't popular), I think it also means to act in a way that is consistent with your personality.

For example as a writer I'm spending a lot of time lately thinking about my "niche", branding, and how to establish a career. A lot of this is basically developing the self-awareness to "be true to yourself". For example I've discovered that I find the tasks required in monetizing a blog to be really dull. Honestly I'd rather just have a day job. So "being true to myself" means not forcing myself into the mold of a pro blogger, no matter how popular that is right now. On the other hand, I've also discovered that I like writing about arts and culture - so if I suddenly went out and pitched a bunch of stories about trail running, that wouldn't be "true to myself".

A certain aspect of this is "do whatever you want." I don't want to dick around with SEO all day; I want to write about the arts rather than computers or rock climbing or international politics. But it's doing what you actually want, in a way that is consistent. It's the ability to stop getting distracted by -- OOOH SHINY
posted by Sara C. at 5:01 PM on January 20, 2012

A similar quotation is found in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This comes at the end of the book:

"Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!"

This seems decidedly Puritan which matches the tone/morals of the rest of the book. I interpret it as, you might as well be honest to yourself and in your actions, flawed as they may be, because you're going to be judged by somebody no matter what. Which is kind of freeing in a way, because if you are, ahem, truly true to yourself, then you're not going to care what others think.
posted by book 'em dano at 5:24 PM on January 20, 2012

I often hear it in a sense of "don't pretend to be something you're not." To me, it has sort of a sitcommy high-schooly ring to it: don't play a sport you hate just because the popular girls are on the team, don't lie about your interests or abilities to impress someone you like, date Sk8er Boi if you like and don't worry about what your preppy friends think.

In that sense, it's not really "do what you want," but "figure out what you really want before you do it."
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:31 PM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just got invited to a frat party by someone in my grad program. I like parties, but I don't like frat parties. I declined the invitation because I am true to myself.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:29 PM on January 20, 2012

My personal take has been for quite a while that "true to oneself" is vague, though I grant it has the customary meanings cited by those who replied above. My distaste began when a High School English teacher mentioned to the class that Polonius (the character in Hamlet) is a moron, so quoting his advice is dangerous. Then I thought about how we all change constantly in life, so am I staying true to my original self, to my ideal self I hope to become, to the self I pledged to another in marriage, etc.? C. S. Lewis said in one of his books that the word "gentleman" has become almost worthless, since it just about only means holding the door open or the chair out, though originally it had a very precise meaning. I think this phrase is similarly weak. One could say "honorable" or "genuine" and convey more meaning, in my opinion.
posted by forthright at 6:41 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another way to think of it might be to understand, accept and honor your basic preferences: Know what you know about yourself; respect what you know about yourself; act in accordance with what you know about yourself.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:46 PM on January 20, 2012

I have the same connotation as araisingirl, that it's more about situations to justify why you might be disappointing someone, not living up to their expectations, doing something they disapprove of, breaking a commitment or a promise. You might say "I had to be true to myself." It's almost like "the heart wants what it wants."

I don't really see how it could be a moral thing. If a cashier gave me too much change back, I'd return it so they don't get in trouble, but that's something I'd do for them, not for me. I can see how it would also be about "I couldn't keep the money because I would feel like a jerk" but that seems different to me. Saying "I had to be true to myself" implies that most people would have kept the money, but you didn't because you are somehow distinctive, you have some values that others don't have that you have to be true to. Which might be true, if you did make a moral choice that most people would not have made.

So I'd say that being true to yourself often implies that you are doing something out of the ordinary because you have some unique characteristic. What's distinctive about you, what makes you different from others, is the most important thing about you, that's why you have to be true to it. There's a special snowflake aspect to it, I think, that does makes it different from just doing whatever you want. It implies that the thing you want is no ordinary desire, but actually foundational to your sense of uniqueness.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:30 PM on January 20, 2012

It's very western, and probably Shakespearian, as drjimmy notes.

It's also a bit Jaggerian. It doesn't mean "Do what you want." It means "Do what you need."
posted by rokusan at 8:02 PM on January 20, 2012

You'll want to read up on Sartre's conceptions of bad faith and inauthenticity.
posted by painquale at 4:20 AM on January 21, 2012

I'll take (1), (2a), and (3) for $50. :-)

(1) If someone wants me to do something that I don't want to do and I give in with no reason other than I don't want to be "difficult," the feelings I have range from mild/moderate disgust with myself to anger at the other person for being demanding to feeling trapped. Not good. If I say "no thanks, I'd rather not do that," I will typically feel some anxiety that the other person won't like me any more (born to people-please, what can I say) but I also feel good for having spared myself yet another soul-sucking activity. So feelings, to me, indicate whether or not I've been true to "myself". Which leads me into 2(a)...

(2a) Buddhism teaches that there is no permanent self, so by that logic there's nothing to which be true. I would agree with this to some extent, since things that I did years ago now go against my grain, and vice versa. However, I do have some traits that will follow me to the grave, if not beyond.

(3) I don't think there's a great amount of difference between the two terms. However, if I do something on a moment's whim, I'm sometimes subject to "is that such a good idea" type of thinking, which could mean that the activity goes against me at some level. Example: eating that row of Girl Scout Thin Mints will delay me from fitting into those summer shorts that much longer. Another example: I'd rather not go see my mom for Easter because I have something else to do, but she's elderly and won't be around much longer, so let's spend the time with her while I have it and avoid the remorse down the road. So doing "what I want right now" can be in conflict with something deeper in me. Waiting and thinking it out rather than jumping into something helps avoid this conflict.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:56 AM on January 21, 2012

I don't think it means anything. I don't think we have a choice.
posted by Area Control at 8:43 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think at best it might mean "be honest with yourself." As in, don't make excuses for your shitty (or righteous, I suppose) behavior, accept that you're slovenly or thoughtless or whatever. Until you can recognize that, you cannot change it, if that's what you desire, and if you don't want to change it, you can make peace with it.
posted by maxwelton at 12:11 PM on January 21, 2012

Such a diverse set of answers. Thanks everyone! I appreciate your thoughtful and intelligent responses.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:15 AM on January 23, 2012

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