T hink about the times that friends, family and colleagues have urged you to “just be yourself.” It sounds so encouraging and affirming. And, sometimes it is just that. Encouraging and affirming. An authentic invitation to truly set yourself free in your own identity. An urging from someone whose only desire is to welcome you and include you, perhaps because they really like and admire you, or perhaps because the person doing the urging believes welcoming and including is a way of life. The right thing to do. Some people just place a high value on welcoming and including.
These are my values, too. Though I confess my life experience sometimes leaves me with the idea that there is often a lot more room in my universe for others than there is room in others’ universes for me. I said these words, verbatim, to my then-bishop, just before I exited institutional priesting for my current life as a writer and counselor.
You see, not everyone who admonishes you to “just be yourself” is issuing an authentic invitation. In some families and in some workplaces “just be yourself” is a kind of gamesmanship. A chess move. More good form than content. I confess that I often experience the utterance as a kind of “red flag.” I’m on alert when I hear it. Because, sometimes and in some cases, “Steven, just be yourself” is more a fair warning than a sincere invitation. Sometimes I find myself making a mental note that this is the last person on earth around whom I should let my hair down and be my vulnerable, uncensored self.
In my private practice, I often work with people who are experiencing this slow, dawning irony. To wit: They grew up in families where it was imprudent to risk selfhood. The unwritten, unspoken ethos of these families was never to challenge the fiercely guarded personas and ego-defenses of those in charge. Those who needed to be in charge. Those whose crippled egos could never tolerate the liberated authenticity of individual family members.
Well they say be yourself/ But they’re just teasing/ The self you must be is the one who is pleasing/ To the folks who prefer/ The you who just pretends/ They call themselves family and friends.
I got into a nest of Christians last weekend. It’s called Via de Christo, a four-day church retreat for adult men and women. In psychological terms, I would say the curriculum is designed to open gestalts. That is, to sneak around our everyday ego defenses and crank open our souls in such a way that we might hear again, deeper and more meaningfully, that we matter. That we are cherished and loved. That we have work to do in the world. Christians would call this last piece “our ministry.”
It was a series of coincidences, actually, that got me involved at all. I’ve spent the past seven-plus years fiercely guarding a polite distance from institutional Christianity. See, the church is my family. Those folks are my kin. My earliest memories of childhood include my maternal grandmother taking me to All Saints Episcopal Church in Phoenix. I remember her firm hand on my shoulder, physically insisting that I genuflect as I approached and exited the altar. I remember the smell of incense the way some adults remember the smell of Christmas cookies as a child.
I was one of five members of what they call “the spiritual team.” A Lutheran, a Methodist and three Episcopalians. Ages 55 to late 70s. We took our work seriously, but, in between events and at lights out in our dormitory, we were like five junior high boys at summer camp. My belly still hurts from laughing.
I came with no agenda other than to watch, listen and serve. I was committed to be only myself, and to welcome and include other selves. And my four new colleagues quickly became friends. I knew that, chiefly because of the ease with which they made fun of me. Satirized me. And me of them. See, I come from a family where you wouldn’t know you were loved if people weren’t regularly lampooning you.
Whatever the participants got out of the weekend, it didn’t hold a candle to the riches I received. A healing of sorts. Because I got to be myself. I was able to rekindle a hope that I, too, might find a way to belong again. To make peace with my family.
They invited me to be myself. And they meant it.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.