Four More Reasons Why “Just Be Yourself” is Not Good Advice

This week's post is once again written by Sooth Intern, Robert Garcia. Robert recently completed his Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine.

This week a big brouhaha emerged over Adam Grant's NY Times Opinion piece titled, "Unless you're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' is Terrible Advice." Brené Brown respectfully and firmly disagreed with what she felt was a reductionist argument and misrepresentation of her work on authenticity. Back and forth ensued over the merits of authenticity while we were left to analyze what exactly makes for good advice. Continuing his pithy Four-Reason-approach accessibly integrating the social and cognitive psychological literatures, Robert's take is below:

“I am large, I contain multitudes”
“Just be yourself” lacks specificity about the facets of the person receiving the advice.  What part of that person is being referenced or highlighted?  Her careful side or her spontaneous side?  His generous side or his frugal side?  We are complex beings, harboring many different sub-identities and filling various social roles – good advice should be tailored to the ones most relevant to solving the problem.

There’s always room for self-improvement
“Just be yourself” tends to operate on the assumption that “you’re perfect just the way you are.”  While it’s great to feel unique and valuable, that assumption also tends to reduce people’s motivation to improve anything about themselves.  We should be humble enough to acknowledge our bad habits – they’re still part of us and it shouldn’t be a threat to our identities to work on changing them.  Sometimes personal growth and problem solving require leaving one’s comfort zone.

Generalities will only take you so far
“Just be yourself” also lacks specificity about the situation the person receiving advice is facing.  What is appropriate in some situations may be inappropriate for others, and good advice should reflect that.  Good advice should also incorporate the cause of the problem.  For example, “Just be yourself” isn’t too useful for solving interpersonal conflict if just being yourself was how you got into that mess in the first place!  

Nobody wants to be a “deer in the headlights”
You’ve got to have a plan of attack before going into battle.  Expecting your true self to come out and save the day in your hour of need may be a tall order for high-pressure situations.  It makes more sense to plan specific behaviors ahead and anticipate different possibilities before it’s too late and time for strategizing runs out.  

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What, then, is good advice?

Our suggestion: good advice is closely tailored to both the person and their situation. 

  1. Identify what the person’s most important values are. 
  2. Identify what specific steps the person can take to enact those values and bring about a desirable outcome. 
  3. Make contingency plans: depending on how the situation unfolds, planning ahead can reduce the likelihood of impulsive bad choices. 

And don’t forget – be supportive and encouraging throughout the process.  Happy soothing!