Any child who has to spend a lot of effort learning how to fit in eventually learns that it’s an endless game of losing. I had a terrible time. Things I tried, or said, didn’t work the way I expected them to. People laughed at me when I wasn’t trying to be funny. You are taught quickly that there’s a correct way to behave and that bad things will happen if you don’t.
This is a really awful experience, but the stupidest and most complicating part is that you are also taught the exact opposite. Soon, painfully, someone criticises your ‘correct’ shell—the thing you specifically designed it to avoid—so now you’re stuck. At the core is the grand contradiction about being different at all. Every film you’ll watch as a child will tell you how important it is to follow your own spirit, but then you go to school the next day, are made to do things that you hate, chastised for not behaving properly. People make fun of you, so, logically, you withdraw… then you are treated worse for being shy. Or they want you to behave a certain way, but to also be genuine. What’s a child supposed to do? “Listen to me! Don’t listen to me!” They are suffocated. I did everything you told me but you still won’t accept me.
To make sense of this, I think it’s natural to try to split the world into two groups. You’ll look for the open-minded good guys who will always respect you for who you are, and aggressively fight off your haters. This works well for a lot of people; it’s better the clearer label you can give yourself, so that your enemies (e.g. racists, sexists) are easier to identify. But it’s a trap, because one day they’ll criticise you too, and you’ll either frantically contort yourself to stay in the club, or have to realise the truth: that conformity is just a fractal cyclone of bullshit, an infinitely-detailed game you can never win.
Be-yourself-ism is everywhere but if you actually take it seriously, it’s practically extremist. Every tiny way someone reacts to you imposes something upon you. A moment of confusion or boredom is a tiny demand to change. A thank-you is a seed of expectation. Or every time someone gives you advice, they are imposing on you their values, as well as what they think you’re capable or worthy of. Same for you when you do it. We constantly tug at these microscopic spider-threads of control—society relies on it. If you ignored this and really did ‘be yourself,’ it would be insanity.
Everyone telling you to stay true to yourself is, unknowingly, inviting you to alienate yourself from them, to be, in their eyes, insane. If they knew the full implications, they probably wouldn’t say it. But maybe they’re right; maybe you need the courage to be seen as insane, if for nothing other than your own sanity.