"I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep, is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints."—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
When I was in sixth grade, my best friend, Ronnie Donoho, and I were inseparable. We did everything together. And because it was 1968 and music was such an important part of our lives, we were totally into the singing group The Monkees. I knew the words to every song they sang and watched every episode of their TV show. We even wore our hair like one of the band members, Peter Tork: strategically dipped below one eye, just long enough to make you jerk your head back and forth every few minutes so you could see from underneath. We thought that was really cool.
I wanted to be like my friend Ronnie, so I tried to do everything the way he did. I liked the same music as he did. I wore the same style of clothes. We even had the same kind of bike. After a while we became so much alike it was hard to tell us apart.
Psychologists say when we're young and our own identity isn't yet fully developed, we tend to imitate others. It's all part of the healthy development of our personalities. Since we don't know much about our own tastes and talents yet, we tend to mimic those of our peers. That's why young people are so impressionable and their friends are such an integral part of their lives.
At a young age, we find being accepted by others is very important. So much so, that many of us are willing to sacrifice our own identity just to gain their acceptance. It's not until sometime after puberty that we begin to notice the distinct differences between what we want and what everyone else does. It's the psychological counterpart to the "terrible twos," that age when you discover you have a body and a will separate from your mother. That's why a two-year-old's favorite words are no and mine. They're just beginning to exercise their own will.
So when we reach those postpubescent years, sacrificing our own identity to be accepted by others begins to lose its appeal, if we're maturing properly. The problem is, many of us don't mature. Our bodies grow up but we get stuck emotionally in that teenage era when we're still trying to find our own identity. The fact is, there are a lot of people walking around out there in the world without a full sense of their own character, willing to do just about anything to be accepted by others, even if it means sacrificing their own integrity.
There are many reasons why some of us don't fully develop into confident individuals. First of all, we live in a culture that rewards conformity. People who are different get ridiculed or shamed until they get back .in line with the social norm. Second, many cultures don't have rites of passage for young people, so it's difficult for them to know when it's time to mature and take on their own individuality.
Since conformity is so richly rewarded in our society, it takes a great deal of courage to be oneself, to stand apart from the crowd and say, "This is who I am, take it or leave it." That kind of courage takes some time and experience to develop. It mostly comes to those who have spent years trying to be something they're not, or pretending to be something they thought they should be. Finally the day arrives when they can't stand the pretense any longer and something in them wants to shout to the world, "You will have to accept me as I am, or leave me the hell alone!"
For many people, this personal declaration of independence doesn't come until later, near midlife. After having spent most of their lives sacrificing their own identity and integrity for others, the day finally arrives when they can't stand it one more minute. Generally speaking this doesn't turn out well. It usually results in some sort of midlife crisis causing people to make decisions out of whim instead of wisdom. That's why 50-year-old men buy red sports cars and hook up with coworkers, or women decide suddenly one day to leave the family and run off to India. They are in search of themselves. They have settled for too long. The choices they made have created too many limitations in life and so their soul screams, "Get me out of here!"
To avoid this fate, you must fully own yourself. You must come to a place of complete acceptance of everything that makes you who you are. When you stop trying to be like others or to be accepted by them, you are on the road to full ownership of your own true character. When your primary interest is in expressing who you are instead of mimicking someone else, you are on the path to self-acceptance.