I think we’ve all done it—we’ve acted in a different way than we really are, to fit into the crowd. We pretend we like a certain food, a sports team, a movie, that we actually don’t. We project confidence when we have none. We bend our standards to look cool. We hide our flaws to look perfect.
In high school, you see students trying to dress alike, talk alike, and pursue the same activities. Sometimes kids rally behind a bully, just glad they’re not the target. Occasionally these kids leave home to find themselves, and try on different selves in the process, the same way you’d try on a pair of shoes.
Sometimes dating tempts us to be fake. We pretend we care about someone’s hobby or favorite music, just to make points. In adulthood you still see folks trying to “fit in,” or to please the boss in hopes of a raise.
Many people really don’t know who they are, yet. They’re experimenting with what fits and feels right. But too often we also trade our authenticity for a borrowed version of ourselves.
We need to give ourselves permission to be who God made us, who we genuinely are. This doesn’t mean we give in to a natural temper, or justify rudeness because it comes naturally– we still strive to improve and conquer our weaknesses. But we learn who we are, and we remember that He commanded us to love ourselves.
The world would have us believe that everyone needs to be gregarious, witty, and wealthy. Edgy language and loose morals are applauded. If you don’t know the current fashion or the latest trendy phrases, you’re bumped down a notch. So those who strive for acceptance struggle to compete and fight their way back up the popularity ladder.
I think women feel more pressure to adopt a fake self than men do. Though it’s hardly the same as it was years ago, even young girls become aware of behavior that appeals to the opposite sex. Girls are urged to worry more about their appearance, and none of us would guess that men get more plastic surgery than women do.
So where do we get the idea that we’re not good enough as we are? Some of it comes from messages we get at home. Maybe a critical peer group, coach, or teacher left lasting scars. Much of this judgment is served up in advertising, movies, songs, and television. And we all know that social media blasts a constant stream of it.
But if you look behind each of those sources, you will not find Christ. You will find the adversary, stirring up self-doubt and discouragement. He doesn’t want us to love ourselves or to believe in the incredible inheritance each of us can claim. He has no such claim and wants to make everyone else equally miserable.
Okay. How do we learn to identify and enjoy our authentic selves?
First, teach children to delight in who they are. Kids are like sponges and will soak up multiple messages before they reach adulthood. Let’s make sure we give them self-affirming ones, pointing out their strengths and good works, and letting them know we love their differences and rejoice in their individuality.
And let’s do the same for ourselves. Being a quiet person is nothing to “fix.” Enjoying other activities than the crowd does, is perfectly fine. It’s called being unique, and it’s actually something to celebrate.
This means you come to truly enjoy your quirks. Yesterday I was in the car with my husband, Bob, and a Big Band song was playing. “I really like this kind of music,” I said. He smiled. “That’s because this is the music they used in cartoons.” I grinned. Yes! I’m a child at heart and loved those cartoons where cows danced with geese, and elephants played their trunks like clarinets. I think they had much better animation and humor than the ones today about taking over the universe.
Cast aside the negative labels you’re still carrying, and replace them with positive ones you know are true.
Study your life and be honest about how much effort you put into being popular. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Avoid popularity if you would have peace.” Think about that. When we are constantly seeking outside approval, there’s no peace. Our worth is up for grabs at any moment and we have to pay constant vigilance at the altar of public opinion. Exhausting!
Realize that differences in a marriage give it depth and interest. William Wrigley once said, “If two men in a corporation always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Don’t feel threatened by someone having a different preference or opinion; see it as a chance to learn something new, and to grow in new ways. Too often we decide something is “right” that has no right or wrong about it—car preferences, favorite pastimes, traditions, even how to load the dishwasher. Don’t be rigid; be willing to embrace other ideas.
Look at your friendships. Yes, of course, we want to have things in common. But do we have everything in common? Are we afraid to mix with people who might see things another way, or prefer something we don’t? You’ll feel happier when you have enough confidence to demand—and give—respect despite different cultures, religions, ages, and politics.
I have a friend who loves wild, modern art. When a group of us goes shopping together we find a store filled with her taste and eagerly go in to validate her choice. We can even tease about our differences. Sometimes a friend will point out a sign with terrible grammar and suggest I paint out the extra apostrophe, something I may or may not have done in the past. Revealing our true self leads to really being seen and known; it makes friendships more fun.
Accept that you will be less than spectacular in some areas. That’s okay. Being average in dozens of ways is not an emergency—trust me, I know this from experience. Often the price of excellence costs something more important—time with the family, time with the Lord, or a pursuit that might have yielded better results.
Examine your priorities. Yes, you may have to forgo that surfing trip with the guys because you promised to see your daughter’s dance recital. Or you might miss a party because you’re committed to attend the temple. These are the kinds of sacrifices that bring blessings. Usually, we have several choices to make. Which one is actually best?
Pray as your real self. You may think you already do, but many of us limit ourselves by language and phrases that don’t really express our heartfelt emotions. Just be you—God already knows the real you, so you can’t fool him anyway—and watch how much love you feel for simply being the person he created.
If others try to get you to conform to a false identity, notice it and fight the urge to comply. Be joyful about your real self and you’ll probably inspire others to be the same. You’ll have a better group of friends, too. They’ll like you for the real you, instead of for a manufactured character.
Serve with a genuine heart of love. Who can’t adore someone like that? Find a cause, or an individual to help. You’ll like yourself so much more if you engage in selfless service. President Kimball used to say it’s because service creates so much more of us to find.
Joseph Smith was a great example of someone who was true to himself and never tried to jump through the hoops of popularity. He said, “It mattereth not whether the principle is popular or unpopular, I will always maintain a true principle, even if I stand alone in it.” Last guy on earth to compromise, right? And he had this same conviction about his integrity and his personal behavior. If people didn’t like him, he lost no sleep over it.
His focus was upon whether God was pleased with him. And that’s where we should be focused as well. When we can strip the world away and just worry about God’s opinion, a serene confidence will wrap around us, and we’ll like ourselves more than we ever have before.
Hilton is an award-winning playwright and the author of many best-selling Latter-day Saint books. Those, her humor blog, and YouTube Mom videos can be found on her website.