When You’re Not You

“You just don’t seem your same self!” someone remarked with friendly concern. “What’s going on?”

What does it mean to be oneself? And, what does it mean not to be oneself?

One’s self is who we are in our shoes-off state—being able to take our shoes off is (usually) evidence that we are experiencing minimal stress from external demands, major disruptions to our lives, looming deadlines, or internal oughts and shoulds. We’re chilling, relaxed. If we were to take a personality test in this shoes-off self, we should get a reasonably good picture of who we are. At other times, we are likely to be adapting to circumstances, and thus not our true self.

In my shoes-off self, I am sedentary, resistant to taking on leadership roles, and imaginative. When I take a personality assessment, such as the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, I get extreme scores on those traits. So when I am being myself, for example, I am sedentary, independent, and creative. When I am not myself, I could go in one of two directions on those three dimensions: I could be more sedentary than usual (as in stopping my exercise) or more active than usual (as in increasing my exercise, doing less reading and desk work, and maybe building a deck or gardening). Or, I could be more independent than usual (as in taking even less responsibility for organizing, monitoring, and evaluating the activities of others) or less independent than usual (as in taking charge and laying down the law for those around me). Or, I could be more creative than usual (as in neglecting bill payments and other mundane tasks and designing new programs that have little likelihood of flying) or less creative than usual (as in obsessing over getting organized and cleaning house/office).


reading, by Christine; CC BY-SA 2.0

What takes us out of our shoes-off self, our normal stride? When we do more of what comes naturally, as in a socialite being even more sociable or a perfectionist being even more obsessively perfectionistic, the cause is typically some kind of extreme stress, as in a major loss (job, friend) or change (in health, status). When feeling such extreme stress, we feel out of control, and doing what comes naturally to an even greater degree is the path of least resistance. The last time I felt major stress was two years ago during a major management crisis, and I can recall that my behavior was more sedentary than usual (taking comfort in reading), more independent than usual (performing even less leaderly functions than usual), and more creative than usual (working on a major family history project). In each case, I was doing more of what came naturally to me.

The other way of not being oneself is to do more of what does not come naturally. For me, that would entail being more physically active, more in charge of others, and more practical. What would cause me, or you, to do less of what comes naturally? The most likely culprit is a goal of some importance. This goal could be externally imposed (by my family, boss, or community) or internally composed (i.e., something I thought up and want to achieve for my own reasons. Whether internal or external in origin, I accept responsibility for pursuing the goal. Goals that entail activities that build on my natural strengths and behaviors allow me to be myself. Some goals, however, demand behavior that is not natural for us. It is these goals that cause us to adapt in order to achieve. When I was in graduate school, our second child was born. As she grew, we needed new sleeping space for her. We had neither space nor budget to expand the residence or buy a nice bunk bed. In order to have a bunk bed, I would need to buy a kit and build it myself. By accepting this goal, I committed to being something other than my natural self—for a while. If you had met me during that time, you would have thought me a highly active person, not sedentary, but if you had met me after the paint had dried and the tools were stored, you would have known me in my natural state—more sedentary. When we take on an important goal, we do what it takes, including sometimes engaging in behaviors that are unnatural for us. Clearly, the ideal goal is one that involves our strengths and natural dispositions. My imminent goals are to write a book (sedentary, creative, and independent) and to build a 19th century merchant ship from a kit with our grandkids (sedentary, somewhat creative, and independent). I look forward to both, and I will be being myself.

So what’s the point? Be aware that, during extreme stress, our natural behavior may or may not be helpful. Know what you may neglect under stress and find a way to account for it—by delegating, finding a crutch, or just forcing yourself to do what is necessary. And be careful to prefer taking on goals that build on your strengths and natural tendencies. When you must take on a goal that leans on your weakness or unnatural behavior, again, find a way to account for it—by partnering, delegating, finding a crutch, or grinning and bearing it.

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