It’s OK to Be Someone Else

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 5.19.44 PMAs a child, I took embroidered throw pillows as writ. Who could argue with truisms like “A stitch in time saves nine” or “Actions speak louder than words?” Some faceless ancestress had deemed them worthy enough to commit the adage to thread. I did not believe, at five or nine or thirteen, that I was wise enough to contradict her. For the most part, these teachings were harmless enough, but one, in particular, was not.
At the start of grade school, I was close with a small group of boys. However, when the cootie outbreak erupted, I suddenly found myself friendless. Unsure how to reach out to my female classmates, I turned to my trusty stitchery for advice. The one maxim that kept appearing was “Be yourself.”
After I noticed this phrase on my aunt’s pillow, I saw it everywhere. It was inescapable. It hung in my best friend’s kitchen. It was posted on the walls of my classrooms. It was even scrawled across a T-shirt I promptly bought.
At first, I loved my new philosophy. It was so reassuring and self-affirming. Making friends would be easy. I would not be lonely for long. And best of all, I didn’t have to do any work! I just had to do what was most natural to me. So I walked around with my shirt tucked in and buttoned up to the neck because I liked it better that way, and I spent most of my time with my nose buried in my book. And I didn’t make friends.
Still, I heard everywhere that “being myself” should work, so I kept escalating my behavior; editing less and less. My individualistic efforts culminated when I preformed social suicide by dancing to Adele’s “Someone Like You” alone at a middle school mixer while everyone watched.
The problem with “being myself” was that I was horrible at making friends. I had no instincts for “cool.” If I had been struggling with test taking or athleticism instead, people would have told me to employ time-management strategies or to train harder. No one told me how to get better at socializing. They implied it ought to be a built-in ability that I could access if I just unlocked my personal potential. Making friends in one of the only skills that everyone is supposed to be born with. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that something was essentially wrong with me. After all, I thought, everyone else was succeeding by relying on some instinct that I clearly didn’t have.
It seemed unlikely that I was uniquely flawed, but everyone else agreed that “being myself” was the solution. Then, I saw Frozen. The movie appears to be touting the virtues of unfettered self-expression at first. Queen Elsa is an outcast because of her special ice powers. After a public display of her “abilities” at her coronation goes wrong, Elsa decides to “be herself” by running off into the mountains. There, she sings her victorious power ballad, wears sparkly dresses, and builds ice castles (presumably, with ice couches, complete with ice throw-cushions.) Normally, movies stop there. Frozen continues. Elsa’s sister, Anna, shows up to convince Elsa to descend the mountain. When she ran away, Elsa plunged the kingdom into eternal winter. Anna reminds Elsa that the ice queen has a responsibility to her kingdom and her sister.
In Frozen, I finally saw a plotline that copied the pattern of my own life. Elsa tried being completely “herself,” but she ended up shutting everyone out. She was lonely and she’d hurt the people she cared about. For Elsa, like for me, “being yourself” did not help. In the dark movie theater, I paid close attention to what Elsa would do next.
Instead of building more and more ice castles, Elsa learned to control her ice powers. She didn’t stop using them, she just channeled them into projects that entertained or aided her loved ones, like a summer ice rink. How revolutionary! As I stumbled out of the movie theater, I thought, maybe it’s fine, after all, to edit my behavior to accommodate my closest friends. Clearly, my old method didn’t work. So, I gave it a try, and Frozen was right.
When I realized that it wasn’t shameful to modulate my behavior out of consideration for others, I made more friends. People liked being around me more, and I was happier, because I wasn’t lonely. Now I know. From here on, I’ll keep the parts of me that make me a better person, but I’ll change the parts of me that stand in my own way. It’s not compromising my integrity to unbutton the top button of my shirt, and I’ve found it makes my classmates more comfortable. Even better, by listening to my new friends, I’ve identified several personality flaws that can (and should) be corrected. I’m less bossy now. Although I’m not intrinsically social, I can practice at it, the same way I studied for the SAT. And after all, in the end, those same pillows that told me to “be myself” share a sofa with others that say, “Relationships take work.”
Disney movies are not necessarily sounder sources of advice than my grandmother’s cushions. But in the end, the source is not what matters. I realized that at Frozen too. For some people, the advice to “be yourself” may really help. For me, it didn’t. Everyone has to choose what words to live by. That day I pulled from Elsa, but tomorrow I may pull from the Dalai Lama. In the end, I decide whether the advice is valid, no matter how it is packaged.

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