‘Be Yourself’ Is a Paradox
“You will be what you must be, or else you will be nothing.” — José de San Martín
Masks are dangerous; they don’t merely hide but transform who we are. We become who we impersonate.
The reason why the Venetian Carnival encouraged the use of masks is not what you think. The official celebration began in 1296 as a way to give people, especially the lower classes, a time for fun. Masks guaranteed total anonymity: leveling the social divisions.
The Carnival allowed people to behave freely — to be themselves. Inspired by ancient Greek and Roman festivals, the purpose of masks was to make everyone feel equal. Citizens could safely mock authority and aristocracy in public. But, the intent to vent tensions and discontentment, caused a surprising effect. Masks encouraged people to free their darkest side.
Soon, hiding one’s identity became the perfect disguise for theft and physical attacks. After sunset, the Venetian Carnival turned into something more sinister: attackers could freely commit robberies or indecent acts.
Masks are tricky: they hide your identity but not your true-self.
André Berthiaume said: “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”
In a world that rewards flawless masks, it’s hard to separate our identity from what we pretend. The masks we wear might seem authentic, but they are just a disguise.
The Paradox of ‘Be Yourself’
“Be yourself — not your idea of what you think somebody else’s idea of yourself should be.” — Henry David Thoreau
Our society tells you: “Be yourself.”
But what does that mean?
We want to be authentic, even if we don’t know what it is. That’s the paradox of the modern version of ‘be yourself.’ Rather than searching within, people are trying to match what ‘authentic’ means to others.
We’ve turned inner exploration into a guessing game.
Being yourself is not about standing out or being different from others. Being authentic is following your path, not comparing to others. When you try to be ‘different,’ you disconnect from what you want.
When being yourself becomes the new fad, self-development is no longer a meaningful journey. The mandate to become different turns you into anything but authentic.
Authenticity is about staying true to what you believe, not about your image— to be brave to express your genuine feelings and opinions.
Don’t confuse being genuine with permission to do whatever you want though. That’s what happened at the Venetian Carnival in the thirteen century. Instead of freeing authentic selves, masks liberate people’s darkest sides.
As Ruth Whippman says in this beautiful essay: “Authenticity is, at heart, the idea that we should make the way we behave on the outside match what we feel on the inside. But really, a functioning society depends on keeping a healthy distance between the two.”
Who Are You, Really?
“But pride is such a foolish mask.” — Paul Anka
Authenticity, in a psychological sense of the word, is connected with your identity.
The Existentialism philosophy movement considered authenticity as the degree to which one is true to one’s personality or character, despite external pressures. Existentialists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, valued individualism — that we are independently acting and responsible, conscious beings.
On the contrary, Existentialists considered lack of authenticity as ‘bad faith.’ Basically that human beings, under pressure from society, adopt values and disown their innate freedom.
Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
When you are not authentic, the only person you fool is yourself.
Acting inauthentically drives self-deception and resentment.
Authenticity Doesn’t Mean Exclusivity
“I can be a better me than anyone can.” — Diana Ross
The moment something is labeled as ‘authentic,’ its genuineness is at risk.
Our obsession with authenticity is dangerous. The patrons of London’s ‘Harris + Hoole’ felt betrayed when they learned that a supermarket chain owned half of the stake of this ‘authentic’ local coffee shop. The customers believed their experience was authentic until they found out about the not-so-exclusive owner.
Authenticity is about accepting things as they are, not as they should be. When we expect experiences to be fashionable or exclusive, we stop seeing things as they are. We confuse the mask with the true identity.
Fame is the opposite of being authentic. Being famous requires to being accepted by the masses. You stop being you to become everyone else’s fantasy.
The book ‘The Society of Spectacle’ predicted our distracted society. Guy Debord, his author, wrote: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live.”
Stop caring about other people’s expectations will set you free. You’ll no longer feel afraid of who you want to be; that’s the first step towards becoming more authentic.
The Portrait of A Fake Society
“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, making you everybody else–means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” — E.E. Cummings
Photos are mirrors with a memory. That’s what Oliver Wendell Holmes said back in 1859. He predicted that the “image would become more important than the object itself and would, in fact, make the object disposable.”
We have become the prey of our image perfect society. Instagramming a meal has become more important than enjoying the food. A ‘selfie’ has become who you are; your latest Facebook post defines your identity.
Your fear of becoming ‘disposable’ turns your self-preservation mode on; rather than being authentic, you care about staying relevant.
Susan Sontag argued that photographs undermine our understanding (of art). “Knowing a great deal about what is in the world through photographic images,” Sontag notes, “people are frequently disappointed, surprised, unmoved when they see the real thing.”
According to the writer and activist, photography has forced us to consider that exposure to images does not necessarily create an understanding of the things themselves. Pictures do not necessarily lead to meaning; the information they convey does not always lead to knowledge.
Guy Debord said: “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other.”
Social Media has become a fake world carnival; you are expected to wear a mask, to hide your true self.
As John Harris wrote here: “If we’re not careful, most of what we do — embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the model of society that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme.”
Five Ways to Be (More) Authentic
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world; our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” — Brené Brown
1. Increase self-awareness
Authenticity is not something you have, but a goal. It’s something you pursue — part of the ‘painful’ learning experience of being human.
It’s intrinsically tricky, due to constant social pressures to live inauthentically. It requires courage and clarity. Write your personal definition of authenticity. Reflect on who you are and who you want to become. And, most importantly, what you don’t want to be.
Clarity drives action.
2. Recognize the masks you wear
You are human; you are not the only one wearing masks. Being authentic is anything but easy.
Wearing a mask is not always negative. Sometimes is how you adapt to uninviting places. Take the workplace, for example. Most companies don’t want employees to bring their souls to work.
However, most masks can be avoided, like faking who you are in social media. When you are under pressure, how do you react? Reflect each day on the masks you wear and why. But, most importantly, don’t confuse the mask with who you are. Don’t let the characters you play take over your identity.
3. Embrace vulnerability
We wear masks to hide who we are. Are you afraid of what others will think of you? Or are you your hardest judge?
Being authentic is accepting that you are not flawless. You have doubts; you make mistakes and are afraid of showing your real emotions. You are only human, just like me (and the rest of the world). Authenticity is not about being perfect but being true to yourself.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Think of your life as a prototype. You are always adjusting and making changes; it’s anything but finished. Have fun. When you can laugh about your flaws, you will stop worrying when someone else makes fun out of you.
4. Don’t filter, just be
Being present is hard. We live in an era of distractions. Checking the screen of your phone when your friend is sharing something personal is not only rude, — you are detaching yourself. Not being present is as unauthentic as hiding your own feelings.
What are you afraid of? What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Learn to follow your instincts. Embrace improvisation. Explore an unfiltered version of yourself— not just of your pictures. Overcome self-doubt to unleash your true self.
5. Accept Feedback as a Gift
The masks that other people wear in front of you say a lot about your authenticity. When you are genuine, you encourage others to be so too. If you hide your feelings or pretend to be someone you are not, don’t expect others to be honest with you.
Embrace feedback as an unexpected gift, as I wrote here.
People are mirrors that reflect your blind spots. Listening to what others tell you or how they behave in your presence will help you reflect on your authentic self. Trying to please others is anything but genuine.
Others can make you aware of the masks you wear. What you do about it is on you.
Give Yourself Permission to Change
“Free yourself from the inauthenticity and disempowerment of your story.” — Steve Maraboli
Being authentic doesn’t mean being static. Your interests change through time, so should your identity. Changing your mind is okay. Don’t get stuck in your own story.
Is not what you are but who you become that matters. You are your choices, as I wrote here. Your identity is not fixed, and it’s not just what inherited. Your personal decisions shape who you are.
When you stick to who you are, your identity becomes a fortress rather than something that sets you free. Nothing last forever, embrace a ‘Maybe mindset.’
Experiment. Free yourself from the paradox of ‘Be Yourself.’
Accept the challenge of being authentic in a fake world.