That’s advice we give to everyone. Whether they’re trying to find a date, a friend or a job, our words of wisdom are: “Keep being who you are…don’t let anyone change you…just step into the room, be yourself and let everyone else deal with the consequences.” I have spoken those exact words to friends for years.
I understand why we say this. There’s nothing worse than compromising your beliefs and passions to get people to like you. It’s a betrayal of our individuality to pretend to be someone we’re not and, chances are, if we achieve what we want by discarding our truest selves, we’ll be miserable in the end because people have only bought an image we project. There’s a lot to be said for telling people to be themselves.
When being yourself isn’t enough
But sometimes being yourself is not enough — sometimes you have to be better.
Take, for instance, a guy who’s depressed because he’s perpetually single. He thinks it’s because of his love of obscure cult films, narrow taste in music and the fact that he’s pursued a career that doesn’t offer him an immense amount of money but has brought him a great deal of satisfaction (it’s very possible that some elements here might have described me as a single man). Should we tell him to abandon his passions for something more mainstream and lucrative? No. We’d tell him to be himself, because trading in those things simply to impress someone would mean they’re not ultimately impressed in him, but in a character he’s made up.
But what if this person is constantly complaining to everyone about his lack of a date? What if he has no sense of style or personal grooming? What if he’s so focused on his own interests that he won’t consider dating someone who doesn’t like what he does, so entitled that he dismisses anyone who doesn’t meet a certain physical criteria, and so unaware of his actions and tenor that he makes people uncomfortable or creeps them out (again, it’s very possible some of these elements might have described me as a single man)?
To tell that person just be themself would do them a disservice. They must do better. They have to clean up and make an effort. They have to understand other people’s comfort zones. Just as they want others to recognize their uniqueness, they have to be willing to do the same to others.
Or take the slacker who complains that he doesn’t make enough money or get enough respect at the office. But he comes in late, is rude to his coworkers, spends his days following Wikipedia and Youtube rabbit trails, and scoffs at being asked to do anything not explicitly specified in his job description.
This person wants a raise, respect and admiration but he forgets that those things are earned. If he wants more, he must work harder. He has to be a team player. He has to go above and beyond. He has to do better.
One of the only ways I got out of my cynical, self-pitying single days was to take a look at myself and realize “Chris, you’re not trying. You have to do better.” Only when I realized that so much of my dissatisfaction was ultimately caused by my own laziness, pride and ineptitude did I begin to move forward, gaining a better job and meeting my wife. I’m not saying that I became perfect, got everything I wanted or pulled myself up entirely by my bootstraps — there was a lot of grace given to me — but I can confidently say that if I hadn’t changed my attitude, stopped whining and started moving forward, I wouldn’t be as content with life as I am right now.
Encourage improvement with tact, love
There absolutely is a wrong way to go about telling someone to improve — I worked with bosses in the past who seemed to delight in pointing out other people’s mistakes, keeping them after meetings to berate them over misplaced commas or browbeating them over every mistake. I saw how that demoralized my coworkers.
But that doesn’t change the fact that we need to hear these things. The best progress I’ve made in life often came after someone lovingly drew attention to my weakness. Whether its was from employers, editors, teachers or my wife, other people have been essential to helping me see my flaws and move forward.
While we mustn’t speak these truths harshly, we still must speak them from time to time, in a spirit of love. We must have these conversations in relationships where trust is already established, where the recipient of uncomfortable words knows that the bearer of those truths only has their best interests at heart. And we must deliver them with vulnerability, aware of our own constant need to improve, move out of our ruts and improve.
Being yourself means being the best you
I bring all this up because I’ve recently realized that being myself is not going to cut it anymore.
I’m writing this on the cusp of making some giant health-related changes. Beginning Monday, I’m going to start waking up at 5 a.m. every day again to take part in a high-intensity exercise regime (I even bought some shorts). I’m going to be making some drastic alterations to my diet, including lowering my calorie count, decreasing my bread and sugar intakes, and even drinking my coffee black. I’ve even started learning how to meditate and have begun incorporating it into my daily routine.
There’s a reason for this. I’m just over a year from turning 40, and I want that decade to be my best. I want to enter my forties energized and healthy, taking on new experiences and pushing myself to try new things. I want to take hikes with my wife without being winded 10 minutes in, and I want to play with my kids without being a sweaty mess. I want to be focused and energized, not bloated and lethargic. I don’t want to be the most out of shape of all my friends. I want do my darndest to make sure I’m around to see my kids grow up.
The way I’m living now won’t allow me to do that. I’m not going to have the strength or energy to play outside with my kids if I sleep late, eat bad and lay on the couch all evening. I’m not going to have peace of mind if I don’t take some time to meditate and clear my head. I’m not going to be healthy if I believe that the best way to live is to “just be myself” and be lazy and eat bad.
And I know that, because my desire to do those things comes from deeper inside than my laziness. The changes I’m making are not altering who I fundamentally am so much as locating who I truly am and removing the obstacles to letting him thrive. We often get thin-skinned and defensive when it’s suggested that we improve ourselves, screaming out “don’t change me!” But our laziness and lethargy often block the very things that allow us to be who we really want to be, the true selves buried deep inside. What we say is just being ourselves is often really impeding us from doing just that. Be better; be the best. Clear out the obstacles keeping you down.
Just as I am?
In my days when I scoffed at people who were concerned with self-improvement (to be clear, you can overdo it), I used the self-righteous response that I didn’t need to change because God loves me just as I am.
And that’s true. I was loved before I took my first breath and accepted by God on no merit of my own. Nothing I can do can make Him love me more, just as nothing I can do will make Him love me less.
But as Max Lucado once said, “God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way.”
The Christian life is one of continually realizing our current selves are not our best selves, that there is still sin and imperfection inside us that must be cleansed away. We’re told in Ephesians 4 “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Put off and put on. Continually reassess what is holding us back from being who God made us to be, and put on the attitudes and behaviors that will shape us into Jesus’ image. We often consider these to be only on certain tiers of sinfulness — lust, greed, lying, adultery. But the more we grow in Christ, the longer that list expands. The small, socially acceptable sins like anger and fear, also need to go. And behaviors that show us to be bad stewards of the body Christ gave us, to let the temple he dwells in begin to fall in despair, to not take the actions that allow us to serve others or have the energy and motivation to live for the Kingdom, need to go as well.
We don’t like hearing that, because it often threatens the things we love. We cry legalism or we dismiss talk about health, nutrition and mental wellness as hipster, New Age mumbo jumbo. Our most common defense is that we’re not going to change because “that’s just how we’re wired.”
But, as I’ve said before, God’s in the rewiring business. Sanctification is the lifelong act of recognizing our shortcomings and humbling ourselves before God so He can change us. But it also takes the very difficult and sometimes awkward work of acknowledging our shortcomings and taking actions — sometimes very hard ones — to change and come more in line with His will. It’s hard work and it changes some fundamental things about who we are. But it does so to bring out the true self hidden inside all along.