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It’s only at the most anxious parts of life that someone gives you the advice to “be yourself!”  

New middle school?  “Be yourself!”
Talent show audition?  “Just be yourself!”
Job interview? First date? 
Reality show pilot?
“Be yourself!”

The phrase “be yourself” basically just means “if you weren’t anxious before, you should be!”

When I was a new photographer and didn’t know how to pose my clients I would say things like “Just be yourself.  Just do what you do.”  The reaction was always the same.  The client would look at me  like, “Wait, be myself, what does that mean?  What do you want me to do?”  Telling someone to just be themselves brings out confused eyebrows, stiff shoulders, and claw hands.


“Be yourself” is trash advice.  “Be yourself” just means “I know you’re headed into a shitty situation that will be so overwhelming you will forget how to exist as a person.”  If you weren’t second guessing your very existence, you are now.  

Take my first day of middle school, for example.  I reek of Bath and Body Works lotion and Altoids.  My backpack is the right brand but my shoes are the knock-off Birkenstocks with the wrong buckle, and I’m positive everyone is going to notice.  Deep down I know I don’t have the social capital to wear non-name brands ironically.  “Be yourself” is the only piece of advice from the school assembly.  Myself?  I don’t even like her. “Myself” is carrying a pocket comb in my Umbros.  “Myself” thought it would be fun to shave my arms and now they itch. 

“Don’t talk about Star Trek all day” would have been much better advice.

Starting a new business

Starting a new business can make you feel as exposed as wearing the wrong Birkenstocks on the first day of middle school.  Announcing to the world that you are starting a new business is tantamount to declaring yourself Student Body President on the first day of 6th gradeEveryone must be thinking, “We’re cheering for you, but damn the audacity.”

Don’t get me wrong, “be yourself” is not said with bad intentions; it actually means the person sees your potential.  But the advice to “be yourself” is so unclear, it’s not a suggestion so much as a command.  Also, it’s nearly impossible to do in all of the occasions where someone offers it as advice.

Like when you’re starting a new business and everything is new.  How can you be yourself when you’re not even sure what to do first?  What does being yourself have to do with figuring out the basics?  Let’s just be honest about this.  “Being yourself” is a Year Two exercise  because year one is about survival.  That’s how I think about middle school, job auditions, and first dates . . . survive and then do the heart work.  You don’t need self-actualization to reserve a web domain or set up your price list.  My first year in business I didn’t know whether I liked photographing babies or boudoir and asking me to define anything unique or specific about my business was not really possible.  I was still learning.  Shoot, I was focused on surviving.

Just Survive

If you are new in business you are still learning too.  So, survive.  The halls of middle school, the job you really need, the business you are starting, these are not the times to consider the radical self love it takes to “own” that situation.  It is okay to focus instead on adapting, blending, and observing.  

So what advice is better than “be yourself”?  It’s simple.  Let them love you.  I’ll say it again, louder for the folks in the back, LET. THEM. LOVE. YOU.  If we’re honest, that’s what makes “be yourself” such a difficult concept.  Letting someone love you is a much more basic skill than understanding and staying true to yourself.  You have to be open to receiving the love of others before you can develop an understanding of who you are.  

Sound a little crazy?  I can prove it to you.

Let Them Love You

When I was studying social work, I learned about the concept of self-actualization and specifically how it relates to child development.  Self-actualization is when you have a deep understanding of your own unique talents and perspectives on the world and strive to reach your potential.  Self-actualization is understanding your “true self.” In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, he explains self-actualization is the top of the mountain.  What a person needs to reach self-actualization is first their physiological needs (food, water, shelter), then safety, then a feeling of belonging and love (“let them love you!”), and then a feeling of self-esteem and accomplishment. 

Only kids who grow up in an environment of safety, security and love will become self-actualized.  If you aren’t eating, you’re not worried about reaching your potential.  If you aren’t safe, you’re not worried about being yourself.  That sounds a lot like year one in business when you have no financial security, very little rest, and not much safety net.  Survive.  Focus on survival.  After that, focus on love.  

How can you let people love you?

  • Accept their expressions of care and concern
  • Be clear and truthful to build trust
  • Ask for and acknowledge help
  • Articulate your boundaries and what is important to you

“Be Yourself” Happens in the Safety of Love

LOVE HAS TO COME BEFORE “be yourself”.  Being yourself happens in the safety of love.

Now here is the hard part – you can’t make anyone love you.  They have to choose to and you have to choose to reciprocate.  You have to let go of those people who are not capable of loving you.  That applies in romantic relationships and in business.  Letting them love you means even if your arms are shaven and you are wearing ugly shoes you are worthy of love.  If your business is as pre-pubescent and reeking of sweat as middle school you, you are worthy of the people who love you.  

Now go slide that pocket comb through your wet ponytail because you are a badass and everyone is going to love you.  Let them.

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