Live Through This

To Thine Own Self Be True

Huh?

Illustration by Marjainez

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, crotchety old Polonius tells his son, Laertes, “This above all: to thine own self be true”—and then, blah blah, something far less quotable. Since then, this advice has been dispensed approximately 5,684,765,876 times. You, as a young person, have probably heard it a lot, for you are young and growing. And it sounds good, suggesting, as it does, purity, righteousness, and a consistent personality.

But there’s one thing that kind of bugs me about this popular wisdom: I don’t get it. Or, to quote the contemplative Angela Chase, “People always say how you should be yourself, like your ‘self’ is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is, even.” Being yourself seems so simple and obvious, but, not to get all liberal-arts-college-student-who’s-just-discovered-philosophy, can you really know who that is?

Sure, you can know things about yourself. You know your beliefs and can predict most of your actions. Your thoughts and feelings are, to a great extent, your own. But your personality has not been completely the same since birth, and if you say otherwise, you’re lying. People change. It’s a time of SELF-DISCOVERY. Freshman friends can be enemies by senior year. Someone who once spent all of her weekends at home now parties those same nights. And people get weird about it. Somehow, changing at all can be interpreted as not being true to yourself.

When I started high school, I was very concerned with getting really good grades. But I took hard classes my freshman year, and my A+ streak didn’t last long. I flipped a shit when I got a C+ in Biology. Being a good student was so important to me, because I didn’t do much outside of school. Then I started writing, blogging, and taking art classes at nearby colleges. I thought these things were way more fun than killing myself studying. It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard, it’s just that I realized there was more to life than getting good grades. To my studious friends, I probably seemed like a slacker (i.e., “not myself”), when really it’s just that my priorities changed. (I think I ended up getting a B in Biology anyway.)

Part of the problem with a phrase like “be true to yourself” is that it really isn’t about you at all. It’s about the people around you. I think what people are really saying is, “Don’t change, because I like you the way you are right now.” It’s similar to the phrase “respect yourself,” which I hear as, “Please act in a way that allows me to respect you.” Sometimes as a friend you DO need to step in when you feel your friend is changing too much for the worse, as in their life might be in danger. Though many people’s criticisms against change are for their own convenience, not general concern for a person’s wellbeing. Like Angela said, “It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it…how do you know it’s even you?” Sometimes the self that people refer to belongs to the past. People will get concerned, or possibly angry, when you deviate from that former self. Remember how weirded out Sharon was when Angela dyed her hair and quit yearbook? Angela wasn’t wreaking havoc, she was just going through a transformation. But the main problem is that change is EXACTLY what you’re supposed to be doing! Not to mention that there really is no such thing as “yourself.” Part of being a teenager (or just being a human!) is that you’re constantly changing. Your personality is not this concrete thing that is locked in forever.

I get not wanting someone to change. I’ve felt that way, too, and I’ve judged people who have changed. I had a friend once who used to be unconcerned with being popular or getting people to like her. She just did her own thing. But then, one day, she decided that partying hard and drinking was cool. She browsed Facebook albums of kids who were going to keg parties and wanted to have that kind of fun. She thought her nerdy social scene was boring, so she changed it by seeking out parties and chances to make new, older friends. “Oh, she’s changed,” I heard people (including myself) say, and it was clear we thought she was somehow a poser for this. Did I think her behavior was strange? Yeah, totally. But at the end of the day, that’s her. She didn’t hurt anyone and thankfully was not abusing drugs. She just wanted a change of scene, and she found it. She’s not the same person now, and that’s OK.

Your identity as a teenager is supposed to change, whether it be year to year or hour to hour. Maybe you go through phases. Maybe you dye your hair blue and listen to punk music. In 10 years, you could still have blue hair—or you could be totally conventional. Changing is not committing to something forever, even if guidance counselors or parents or friends might have you believe otherwise. After all, who knows yourself better than you? ♦

61 Comments

  • MissKnowItAll April 23rd, 2012 7:10 PM

    You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for something like this. After I finished middle school, I asked my friend who’s a senior what the key to being happy in high school is. Her advice? Be yourself. At first, I totally blew it off because what did it really mean? Then as the months went on by I realized she was right. Being yourself doesn’t have to mean staying the same forever. Like Hazel, my grades meant a lot to me. Like any other New York high school students know, I’m in a specialized high school. I cried when I got a 70 on my chemistry test. Then I realized something. I was so much more than my test grade. I didn’t want to remember high school as the biggest headache of my life. So I transformed. I dyes my hair purple and stooped obsessing over perfection. I realized that there were just somethings I couldn’t be perfect at. And oddly enough, I was okay with it. I focused on my art and writing and it made me a happier person. When ever my friends asked me why I was changing I told them I was staying true to myself.

    • Nicole B. April 23rd, 2012 11:39 PM

      Thank you so much for writing this. I’m in the same boat, and I need to learn how to do just this.

  • Kathryn April 23rd, 2012 7:12 PM

    one of my favorite angela chase quotes!

  • starcollector April 23rd, 2012 7:14 PM

    I TOTALLY get this. I’ve been struggling with the idea of a “self” lately, and I just have no idea what it even refers to. If I don’t know who I really am and what my point of view is… how am I supposed to “be myself”? Ugh. I think that’s some adult advice that’s parallel with “enjoy your youth while you still have it”. Impossible, my dear Watsons. You can’t make yourself enjoy something, ya know?

    http://china-lily.blogspot.com/

  • alicia- April 23rd, 2012 7:16 PM

    this was perfect
    and not just cause im sitting in english at the moment and we are studying hamlet

  • April 23rd, 2012 7:19 PM

    I love this article. This really helped me undersatnd that just because im into slightlly diffrent things now it doesn’t mean im not the same persn i was a year ago, so thank you again!

  • awesomelikeapossum April 23rd, 2012 7:26 PM

    refreshing article. Yay for being first comment!

  • awesomelikeapossum April 23rd, 2012 7:27 PM

    lol i guess my computer didn’t refresh-not first comment after all :)

  • guiltfreedonut April 23rd, 2012 7:43 PM

    My gosh, I’m changing ALL THE TIME. I’m even embarrassed about the taste I had in things just last week!

    PS. Biology was actually the WORST SUBJECT EVER. I think there should be a Rookie article called, “How To Get Through Biology.”

    http://www.guiltfreedonut.com

    • MissKnowItAll April 23rd, 2012 8:34 PM

      I second this suggestion.
      Biology is the bane of my existance

      • Brit April 24th, 2012 6:05 AM

        I third this.
        I can’t wait until next year where I get to choose my classes so that I’ll never have so sit through another lesson again!

        But yes, a “How To Get Through Biology (Or Physics. Or Economics)” article would be marvellous.

      • MissKnowItAll April 24th, 2012 6:26 PM

        “How to get through Chemistry” would really be helpful right now…

    • SparklyVulcan April 24th, 2012 10:03 AM

      I agree too. :P Biology sucks. (except for the parts about the human body and not the stupid little cell parts. haha)

    • MissKnowItAll April 24th, 2012 5:02 PM

      Hah. Totally remember how everyone aced the test about sexual reproduction…

      • AYAtheOUSH April 25th, 2012 11:19 AM

        the reproduction test had the highest average out of all the tests that year…

      • MissKnowItAll April 25th, 2012 3:34 PM

        When we got a hundred on that test, the teacher told us we were sexperts. Don’t know if that’s a compliment or not…

  • caro nation April 23rd, 2012 7:47 PM

    Off topic, but I’m enjoying looking at these fashionable marimekko-esque crotches in the background.

  • Adrienne April 23rd, 2012 7:50 PM

    Yes! I love this so much. Being yourself is just so complicated… I remember one day in English we were looking at short essays and this guy brought up the debate on whether only your actions sum up who you are or what you think of yourself, which is kind of an interesting insight.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • maddzwx April 23rd, 2012 8:11 PM

    Thank you for this! Is it possible you are reading my mind?

  • Lurkingshadows April 23rd, 2012 8:13 PM

    Ahh Hamlet! I totally get this. I had a friend who got a girlfriend and then changed a lot, including ditching some of his friends. I remember on one account telling him of how he changed and he actually knew what I was talking about. I still feel guilty for getting all worked up and “omg he’s changed so much” over something pretty stupid.

  • ravenflamingo April 23rd, 2012 8:36 PM

    This couldn’t have come at a better time! I used to think I had my future all planned out, but lately I’ve been considering other options and I felt like I was losing myself. Thank you for letting me realize that it’s okay to change.
    http://ravenflamingo.tumblr.com

  • LexiconDevil April 23rd, 2012 8:44 PM

    This is lovely! But the English major in me has to tell you…Polonius wasn’t on his deathbed – he said this to Laertes before Laertes went off to France. Just realizing this because I literally read Hamlet yesterday. Besides that, this is so great!

    • anonymouse April 23rd, 2012 9:02 PM

      Also, great, is misspelled in the 3rd paragraph.

    • Phoebe April 24th, 2012 12:02 AM

      My fact-checking error! And, apparently, it’s been too long since I read Hamlet. Thanks for the catch!

  • maggs April 23rd, 2012 8:50 PM

    I did not think I would find Buddhism principles on here! Siddhartha would be proud,

    anatman 4 lyf!

  • MadameMustachio April 23rd, 2012 9:06 PM

    Wait, wait…it wasn’t on his deathbed! It was when Laertes was leaving for Paris! :) Polonius doesn’t die until…well, later. But I love that speech. :D Sorry, I just adore Hamlet, so…yeah, you can imagine it irritates the hell out of me when people pretend a hold up a skull and go “To be, or not to be…”

    But, anyway, about the article. Just…wow. Yeah, this really applies to me so well right now. I’m about to graduate high school, and I’ve been getting pretty…existential, lately. This is wonderful. Thank you. :)

  • Lotta April 23rd, 2012 9:28 PM

    While many of the students in my high school philosophy class are analysing and discussing arguments for ‘self’ by philosophers like Locke and Hume, I am often having a different argument, a lot like this one but in my head. WHAT EVEN IS YOUR TRUE SELF? I’m glad someone said it :) …. and i’m also glad that someone quoted Angela Chase
    Thanks Hazel

  • Roxxxanne April 23rd, 2012 9:38 PM

    This has been on my mind too. The reason people deny change is because its pretty freaking scary. No one likes the idea of waking up tomorrow and being a totally different person (not that it happens that way). Anyways, good article, good ideas.
    xxxo

  • KinuKinu April 23rd, 2012 9:43 PM

    This is incredibly helpful.Seriously,this is awesome.

  • nattydubbz April 23rd, 2012 9:44 PM

    This makes me feel like i’m normal. That it’s ok to change friends and scene every once in a while. Change isn’t permanent all the time, it just seems to happen. Thank you for this.

  • Yellie April 23rd, 2012 9:47 PM

    I really think the quote “to thine own self be true” is great, because you don’t want to do things that feel dead wrong to YOU, but it is the way people use it where it gets screwed up. Adults seem to expect in a sorta subversive way, for teenagers to have everything figured out right away.
    Nine times out of ten, not gonna happen.

  • roserach April 23rd, 2012 9:56 PM

    I just came to this conclusion about a month ago. In second and third grade iwas very studious, and by choice didn’t have many friends. When I got into the end of third grade and through fourth and fifth I changed myself a little bit. I realized that could still be friends with people who were less mature then me so I wasn’t utterly alone. But then this year as I entered middle school I met mire people. These people were who I had been hoping for in second and third grade. The same people who I had decided didn’t exist in fourth and fifth. I started to really question who I was. I wanted to be the person I abandoned in second and third grade. But I also wanted to be the more outgoing newer version of me. Finally I realized halfway through the year was the only way to be my self was to ignore all of that. I started making decisions based on what I decided was right, rather then what my “fifth grade self” or my “second grade self” would do. I finally realized that that was the only way to have the morals that both parts of me believed in. I was literally just thinking about this last night. Love you Rookie!

  • roserach April 23rd, 2012 9:58 PM

    Sorry about all the grammatical errors!!

  • Nikkita April 23rd, 2012 10:28 PM

    I love this so so much.
    I used to obsess over grades and being the best too. I was always in the top classes and I got awards and things and then ever so slowly I just didn’t care as much about grades. Now I’ve left school to pursue music, which I’ve always loved but never considered it to actually be a thing I could do instead of school. I still feel like the same person even though I’ve changed a lot.
    Also I agree with the part about other people changing. I have a hard time accepting that people I used to be close to aren’t in to the things that made us friends in the first place. But then maybe they are thinking the same about me too.

  • Hunter April 23rd, 2012 10:28 PM

    Mad luv 4 Homegurl Hazel

  • greenskirtwhiteshirt April 23rd, 2012 10:36 PM

    Sometimes I think the changes people complain about are only the superficial ones. I’m not sure people change so much because if you’re a nice person you generally stay a nice person. I guess it appears as “change” when you start being nice to a new group of people that you maybe weren’t nice to before or start excluding people you maybe included before.

    Maybe it’s time we update that saying to “be comfortable in your own skin.”

  • missblack April 23rd, 2012 11:36 PM

    I distinctly remember watching that episode of My So-Called Life (reruns on Sundance channel!) and I was so glad that I didn’t go to school, because she was talking about how everyone at school expects you to be the same person you were in first grade.
    I feel like being homeschooled, I didn’t have any restraints on my self-expression or any pressure to not change…I went through a million phases and I didn’t have any ‘school’ friends to say “Ugh why are you doing this?” and for that I am profoundly grateful.

    I think that is also probably why I feel like I do have the ability to be true to my own self, or at least the self I am now.

    (Also I can’t believe there wasn’t any Clueless quotes in this – ” Well I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that” hahaha)

    Little&Trivial

  • Natashaalexandra April 24th, 2012 12:42 AM

    Word.

  • Maradoll Mynx April 24th, 2012 2:38 AM

    Thank you so much for this. It’s exactly the way I’ve been feeling lately but described in words which make more sense. My friends and family have basically excommunicated me recently for changing in ways that didn’t please them. Most of the changes were temp. situations, things I was exploring. It’s tough when you realize that not everyone is okay with *you* going about the business of what truly *is* being yourself…changing and growing and changing your mind and letting situations and words change you. Anyway, it helps so much to see it out on the table like this.

  • Bookbek April 24th, 2012 5:40 AM

    Great post! And relevant to me at the moment. I’ve spent a while just coasting along and doing the same things- stuck in a rut. This year I’ve started going back to the things I love- writing and music, making new friends on the internet, exploring new interests. One of my close friends is freaking out and getting jealous that not all of my new things are about her, or include her. She is really negative about anything I do now.

    Thing is- I’m not even a teen, I’m 33! “To thine own self be true” is a process that happens throughout your whole life, I think.

  • Minella April 24th, 2012 7:03 AM

    +1 for quoting Angela Chase like the philosophical genius she is!

  • bellaumbrella April 24th, 2012 7:10 AM

    I always thought it was really weird that people would quote Polonius’ ‘to thine ownself be true’ especially as throughout the whole play he is the most deceitful. Plus he always gives shit advice to Laertes e.g. ‘Neither a borrower or lender be..’
    Both of these quotes sound useful but are actually pretty empty of real advice. I think maybe Shakespeare was kind of making a point here..

    • NotReallyChristian April 27th, 2012 2:03 PM

      As a [massive] Shakespeare nerd I could not agree with you more. This article is really great but that’s the most over-used and wrongly-used Shakespeare quote ever!

  • bellaumbrella April 24th, 2012 7:12 AM

    I totally agree with your article by the way and especially love the My So-Called Life references, and actually the associations I have of Clueless from that quote!

  • MinaM8 April 24th, 2012 7:12 AM

    This was just the thing I needed to read. I’ve heard since I was little (thank you, Disney) to “be yourself”, but I never had a “self”. So I was kind of lost, my whole life. Recently, I started wearing makeup, and listening to different types of music, and wearing different clothes… But it’s just so hard to be different. I guess I’ve always had problems with the idea of creating my identity. This really made me think a lot, and even if no one will ever really know what describes themselves, I think that all the little details and aspects of our mind and personality create who we are, and the things we go through in life will always shape us and help define the meaning of our true selves!

  • gal April 24th, 2012 8:46 AM

    Everyone should have to read this article! This sums up everything that I’ve been trying to understand over the past couple of years. It always seemed so complicated but seeing it written like this just makes it so simple. I used to be hard on myself and others for changing their opinions or personality and it took me a long time to realise what’s the big deal?! I wish I got to read this when I was younger.

  • Dagmara April 24th, 2012 10:07 AM

    So true!

  • berserks April 24th, 2012 10:16 AM

    I see so many people struggling with the simple yet trivial concept of “being yourself” all the time. It’s really hard trying to find your place in everything and sometimes you may feel as if you’re the only one who has to deal with it but always remember that you’re in a room full of people dealing with it too. I can’t deny that I’m having a bit of trouble with figuring out who I am but this article gave me a better grasp on how to come face-to-face with it and simply be myself no matter how much I change. Thank you!

  • RaineFall April 24th, 2012 11:03 AM

    I too totally get this. I’m English, so our school systems a bit different, but I changed schools when I was 16, so I would be going into Junior Year for you guys. I really wanted to change schools because in the 5 years I realised the person I am was completely different to the person I was 5 years ago, yet all the people in school still saw me as the person from then. So as soon as I could I moved to a different place, and though I found out my identity isn’t what I thought it was, I found my true ‘self’ from the change. In this different school I was able to do things that held me back in my old school because of the way people perceived me there. Now I have done everything from be in the school musical to actually going to parties and enjoying myself.

  • Ellie April 24th, 2012 11:54 AM

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Thank you so much! It’s nice to hear that it’s okay to change.

  • varnishedjeans April 24th, 2012 2:07 PM

    I think you’ve misinterpreted the quote. I encourage everyone to rethink “to thine own self be true” as a way of accepting yourself and the changes that are imminent to happen. So, don’t allow yourself to change in ways that aren’t true to you, whatever yourself in that moment happens to be defined as.

    So, don’t hold yourself back or others from finding what makes you/them happy. Essentially, doing whatever feels right in that moment in your life, regardless of what the world defines you as, is truly being ‘true to yourself’.

  • EmJay April 24th, 2012 5:13 PM

    Love this.

  • chameleon22 April 24th, 2012 9:00 PM

    thanks for such a down to earth article. it makes me feel confident to try new things and live outside the box

  • ediesgarden April 25th, 2012 10:28 AM

    This was so interesting. I’m not a teenager any more, but I changed so much when I was, and am still changing, though less often. It’s part of the glory of being human, the impermanence of things and the fact that we can be whoever we want to be.
    I always saw ‘to thine own self be true’ as being quite different to ‘be yourself’. I think Shakespeare is saying that you have to be true to yourself, always and that includes changing or mixing things up. It’s what you think that matters. At least, that’s how I’ve always viewed it.

    I had a friend in high school who changed COMPLETELY in his first year of college. Like, literally became the opposite. And I admit, at first we all thought he was faking/posing whatever. But, I’ve realised that he changed because he wanted to and he’s happy how he is. It does mean that I like him a lot less than I did, but that’s on me, not him. We drifted apart now, which is sad, but I think natural and probably for the best.

  • hillgriff92 April 25th, 2012 2:51 PM

    Thank you so much for writing this article! I really needed to read something like this. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder, severe depression, and self-injury for 7 years and I was just recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder… One of my biggest struggles is knowing who I am… I feel like I have no true sense of self. Reading this was really great because it made me realize I don’t have to know… I don’t have to be a person whose every like, dislike, hobby, style, etc. is set in stone. I don’t need to figure out who I am… I know my values and my morals and those may change or they may not. I can change from day to day. It’s ok. I’m allowed to change and develop and like new things. I don’t have to be one set thing.

    Thank you so much for this. It has truly made a difference. <3

  • LittleMissE April 26th, 2012 2:39 AM

    This is really wonderful. I like hearing that I’m not, like, a rock locked in a trunk. I can change!
    This also reminds me of the now-really-embarrassing gothic phase I went through. When I was twelve.

  • Filia-Zissy April 26th, 2012 11:26 AM

    Thank you so much for this article! I feel like I’m constantly looking for “my self” and that my interests change so fast make it hard to find something like an identity – like on sentence you could describe yourself with. Since I was nine – I’m sixteen now – I was a great Harry Potter fan and now somehow it’s not that important anymore and that scared me. That may sound a bit funny but THAT change represents a change of my whole personality.
    Thank you for encouraging me to change. You’re so wonderful.

  • Eliza May 1st, 2012 12:36 PM

    That part about being really serious about grades and staying in on weekends, that used to be me. And now, I stay out partying on the very same nights. This one girl told me that I was kinda nerdy before, and now, I am all sexy. But I was rebellious too and really funny as well; I still am! Maybe, a person has a lot of layers and not just one specific role. What I hate is that some people think of me as a hot bimbo, and some, as an intelligent nerd. But I am capable of being a lot at once. Why can’t people get that? I swear I am gonna change how I am perceived. I will have people take me seriously even if I am talking about politics with my fake eyelashes falling out.

  • Sasha C D July 14th, 2012 10:45 PM

    “…and it must follow as the night the day, thou cans’t not then be false to any man.”
    http://youtu.be/BI8T5DPxY5Y?t=2m18s

    …and don’t do what I did and put up a fake self around you where you edit out any trace of personality for fear of getting a negative reaction from people. I started when I was 13 and haven’t yet managed to break the habit properly. It ruined my relationship with my family, it stopped me making friends, and it frightened people I worked with – I swear people at my office thought I was a psychopath, they were waiting to see my on the news with bodies in my garden.

  • nizmocat April 11th, 2013 2:43 AM

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, trying to figure out who I am and who I want to be. And it’s impossible because I am constantly changing, just like everything everywhere. It kinda annoys me when people say to me, “oh that is so YOU!” What is that even supposed to mean??? If I don’t know who I am, how do you? And what if I don’t even like myself? Ugh.
    Being a teenager is about self-discovery, and hopefully we’ll all be less confused on the other side :)