Updated: Mar 10, 2022
There we were, in one of the beach communities south of LA, about to turn onto the Pacific Coast Highway, and we see this guy walking along the street. With this t-shirt. Well, I just had to grab a pic. So we asked the guy and he very nicely said yes.
Thanks, guy! Because there’s a lot to talk about, about the slogan on the guy’s t-shirt. About all of our hopes and dreams, about our difficulties and disasters.
Let’s start with what the shirt is saying.
First, it’s advice. Hey! Go ahead. Do it! Just be YOU. It’ll be good; you’ll see. They’ll adjust.
Second, it’s a prediction. I—this wise and experienced t-shirt—am here to say that, based on much research and years of life well lived, whenever you are just you, guess what? People adjust! So you never have to worry about being you.
This is the kind of stuff we all love to hear. What could be better!?! You are just you and, one, it’s the world’s problem, not yours, to deal with it, and, two, they will deal with it. They’ll be okay with it! You, the square peg, will turn the world and everyone in it into a square-shaped hole.
And so we can celebrate the self. The age of Romanticism, especially the American version expounded by Emerson in the mid 1800s, was all about this. Emerson was the guy who said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” The greatest accomplishment! Not being a good person. Not making a difference in the world. Not being loving. Not being excellent at something. Not winning the Nobel Prize. Just being you.
And of course zillions of products are sold on the basis of self-expression, like this Sharpie campaign: “What would the world be like without self-expression?” Without you being you. Something the whole world now is waiting for. How encouraging!
Ah, how well I remember the ’60s, when everyone decided to throw off their shackles and express themselves, and soon the streets were crowded with hippies, all dressed just like one another. It's so hard to "be you"!
But the main reason I want to talk about the wisdom the t-shirt is claiming to offer is whether it is actually true and useful. Particularly in relationships. If I’m in a relationship with someone, can I just “be me” and count on the other person to adjust?
This is complicated.
A relationship is a contract, first and foremost. This is who we are, this is what we need from each other, this is how we agree to meet each other’s needs, and so with this full understanding we can commit to each other. So when two people are in the realm of getting to know one another it really is best to “be you.” Certainly in the sense that if you don’t like going for hikes, it's best not to pretend you do like them if once you’re married it’s going to come out that you don’t like hiking. Both people entering a relationship truly deserve to know the real person they’re getting involved with.
We had a guy who worked on our house back in Boston who was an avid, top-level golfer. (No, the pic isn't him, but it could have been!) He made it clear before he did his first job for us that if there was a nice day for golfing, that’s where he was going to be spending his afternoons. Unless we were having an emergency.
But we didn’t “adjust.” We accepted his terms as offered in advance. Especially since we knew from the people who recommended him that he did great work and never overcharged. You can be sure—and he told us stories about this—that plenty of people did not adjust at all when he took an afternoon off to play golf. In fact he lost a lot of jobs because of that.
But in any case, it’s before you make a commitment that “being you” is most helpful.
But what about after you’ve signed on?
Here’s the thing. Life changes. People change. What happens if I was a pleasant person when my work wasn’t so demanding, but ten years later my workload increased along with my level of responsibility and now I’m not such a pleasant person to my spouse? Do I listen to the t-shirt and just be irritable, stressed-out me and give you all the responsibility for adjusting?
What if you suddenly want to live in the country with the cows and the chickens? Do I just...leave it to myself to adjust by either coping with your absence or by moving to the country with you?
So you see, there are many problems with “Be you. They’ll adjust.”
For one thing, lots of times they’ll adjust by walking out. Or firing you. Or not listening to your music. The very easiest adjustment anyone can make is “No. Bye!”
Another thing is that for most of us “being me” is more complicated than it might seem. We all have tastes and inclinations. But we also have goals. Both are “me.” We have to correlate them. Maybe my husband wants to “be himself” by growing a beard. But then maybe he’ll have to deal with the reality that my ability to adjust to that stops at being able to enjoy kissing him any longer. So now he has to stroke his beard and contemplate the “being me” of wanting a beard versus the “being me” of wanting a wife who’ll want to kiss him.
Which brings us to the issue of other people. Those damned other people. How they screw up our best plans and most delicious dreams. I want to live life dressed like a pirate or a clown every day—just being me!—but those damned other people call the t-shirt a liar and refuse to adjust to it. Patients just won’t come to a therapist who’s dressed like a pirate or a clown. I’m the one who gets marginalized. Doggone it!
Other people—spouses, bosses, customers, colleagues—are the ways we get our needs met in society. We all want to “be me,” but that means we all find that “being me” in a way that’s odd or disturbing or difficult for others will usually not be worth other people’s adjusting to. And then the inner rewards of “being me” won’t seem worth it.
The drama of marriage is whether there’s room for two whole people in this relationship. Me being me and you being you. There rarely is. That’s where the drama comes in: from the ways we walk on the edge of failure to find ways to make this relationship feel as much like home to both of us as possible. (We had a really good post about this several weeks ago.) And people do that all the time. Our book Why Couples Fight is all about overcoming the obstacles to making that happen in your relationship.
We’ve all been teenagers and so we all know how tragic it feels as it dawns on us that society has little interest in “me being me.” In a way, adult life is about continually finding ways to claw back the self from the demands society makes on it. This is important work we all need to do. But we can’t do that by pretending that “being me” is something others will be eager to help us with.
The last picture is Aliza Nisenbaum's Las Talaveritas, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016.