BY MARYBETH GRONEK
Enter: Seemingly perfect single person at a family gathering.
The scene goes something like this. You’re at a function. A relative (a usually caring and compassionate one, I might add) inquires about the State of Your Love Life.
You clear your throat. You’re prepared. It’s only the 5,846th millionth time you’ve been asked this question.
I’ve been dating a bit, but no one in particular that I’m excited about right now.
The relative turns to you, bleary-eyed, with Mother-Theresa-imbued understanding and consideration, and says,
“Just be yourself.
When you meet the right person, it will work out.”
I’ve never played soccer (or any contact sport for that matter). But this phrase impacts me the way I imagine a ball-to-the-groin hits the not-so-fortunate recipient: right where it hurts.
I’m in a relationship right now, so I’ve been spared the “just be yourself” line for some time now. This distance has allowed me to analyze the phrase more logically and less emotionally, and to fully understand why it is so irksome, frustrating, and confusing.
The problems with this phrase are threefold.
#1 — It assumes I haven’t been “myself” up till this point.
I can’t really begin to explain how insulting this is, but I’ll try. To evaluate someone’s dating life, from the outside looking in, and to conclude that the reason they are single is because they’ve been “shy” or “not themselves” during dates is the height of arrogance. If you could just stop being so love-struck or so anxious or so obsessed with what other people think you could finally find a mate you poor, unfortunate person! It implies that you think I have zero game, extreme nervousness, or massive insecurity issues (all of which may be true btw), but for you to assume that is happening and to rely on that as the “source” of my singleness says more about you than it does about me.
People are complex. They are beautiful, wonderful mysteries wrapped inside intricate, magnificent enigmas. Buried in a treasure box. On a remote island. On another planet. Across the galaxy.
It takes a massive amount of time to simply “skim the surface” of what makes a person tick. To understand why they act a specific way in certain situations. Ask married people. They’ll tell you it takes a lifetime to learn just one person, and even then there are mysteries to unravel. Each day a new discovery. You’re telling me you can take a quick glance at my circumstances and chart a simple course from You-Are-Acting-This-Way to You-Are-Single? B.S.
#2 — It assumes the lack of being “myself” is the reason I’m single.
Another huge assumption. Another miscalculation with broad strokes. There are *plenty* of reasons why people are single, many of which have nothing to do with “not being myself.”
For those of you actively dating — maybe you’ve just met a lot of duds lately. Or maybe you met some incredibly interesting people, but their value-system didn’t quite align with yours, making it a poor match long-term. Or maybe the value-system aligned but the chemistry just wasn’t there. I hate to be the it’s not me, it’s you girl, but sometimes the shoe fits. Sometimes we go through bouts of dating people that just aren’t right for us. And it has nothing to do with “being myself.”
For those of you not actively dating — maybe you’ve made a choice to stay single for a season to focus on your career, or your friendships, or other passions. Or maybe you’re just too damn busy loving your life to really care.
Life is multi-faceted, and so is love. To assume that someone is single because they aren’t being themselves shows your naiveté — as if that is the only reason why things don’t work out. Or why people are single. Come, now. Nuance with me.
#3 — It conveys that I shouldn’t change.
When I hear “just be yourself” it also sounds a lot like “don’t change.”
Which is TERRIBLE advice if you actually care about someone.
The sweet mom who lovingly tells her boy he is perfect, that he doesn’t have to change a thing about himself, is doing him a grave disservice.
What if he needs to change? What if I need to?
There’s so much about dating that is mysterious, but this part is crystal clear: if you have unappealing habits that are repelling quality people, then you probably need to change.
Some obvious eye-sores in dating:
What if it is you?
What if you *need* to change to attract the partner of your dreams? In that case, saying “just be yourself” and implying someone doesn’t need to change is extremely bad advice, especially if they do want a partner. It will likely leave them lonely forever.
Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t about “accepting” someone. We accept the people we care about. Duh. This is about calling out behaviors, patterns, and life choices that are so obviously limiting peoples’ chances at love.
And, as the recipient, having the humility to course-correct.
Yes, I may need to change. And that is absolutely okay!
As you can see, this “just be yourself” phrase has its issues.
The phrase would be problematic enough if it just stopped at Hey! It has multiple, conflicting meanings, so stop using it.
But there’s more.
There’s an undertone to this phrase that is actually quite true. Piercingly true. That’s the confusing — and effective — part. The *face-value* component is off-base. The undertone is spot on.
What I think people intend to mean when they say ‘just be yourself’ isn’t don’t change rather, show up. Let me explain.
Sometimes we hold back in relationships. We trade authenticity for attachment. We don’t show up fully for fear that those in our life will leave. When something someone does bothers us we don’t say anything (silence) or we lash out (anger), both of which mask our true emotion — sadness and pain. Or we hold back on what we really want to do or say because we don’t think the other person can “handle” us.
Something I’ve been asking myself repeatedly in my current relationship: what does it look like for me to show up right now?
It changes moment to moment. Sometimes showing up means dancing barefoot, unabashedly, to Frank Sinatra with my boyfriend because I feel like being romantic. Sometimes it means saying I’d rather stay in than go out because the sweatpants are calling my name! Sometimes it means telling him, with complete vulnerability, that he let me down instead of responding with anger or silence. Sometimes it’s being strong for him. Sometimes it’s letting him take care of me when I need it, letting him pick up the pieces of a bad day when I can’t do it on my own. Sometimes it’s catching his eye across the room and twirling, because I just feel like being a girl in that moment.
Essentially — “showing up” is acting on and vocalizing my truest feelings and thoughts. No filter. No cover-up. No hiding.
I think this is the essence of “just be yourself” advice in it’s purest, most helpful form. People rarely hear this undertone though, because they’re too repelled and distracted by the surface, nonsensical meanings.
“Just be yourself” comes across as others suggesting I’m presenting a mask to the world (which, again, is insulting) or that I don’t need to change anything (which, again, is wrong). When rather, the real sword-piecing truth is Hey — you’re showing up at 75% of yourself. Can you stop hiding when you’re disappointed and communicate that please? Can you show up at 100%?
I submit we have the funeral for this phrase.
And say something much more useful instead.
Show up. Continue showing up. I’m so proud of you.
Very few times in life does the sentiment “it’s the effort that counts” actually hold its weight in veracity. This is one of those times. When it comes to dating, it is the trying that counts. It’s the putting oneself out there. It’s the showing up at 100%. It’s the trying, over and over again. Whether you’re single or in a relationship.
Because it is precisely in the effort that you get the result. You can’t snap your fingers and be happily married. You can’t meet your dream partner if you don’t put in the effort of dating and show up completely in that space.
So when we see a single person showing up, let it challenge & motivate us to do the same in our own love life (if we aren’t already).
And let’s not offer them the ultra-confusing word salad of “just be yourself.” Their effort warrants much more.
Instead let’s applaud them for saying ‘no’ to the wrong thing, even in the midst of what might be a lonely season.
Let’s applaud them for trying to fix their life up before inviting someone to share it.
Let’s applaud them for showing up. Over and over again.
The way we show up over and over again for our partner. Our job. Our family and friends.
Acknowledge and honor the effort.
You are trying. And that’s awesome.
It’s really that simple.
Archives by Month