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? ♦