Being Yourself : What Do We Really Mean?

“Hey, since when have you been reading Orhan Pamuk?” he asked me when I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness In My Mind. He knew that I usually read mysteries and thrillers.

“I came across the book review of this book and it sounds good. Saw this book in Singapore. So, I just bought it. I force myself to read literature because my reading mates read literatures. I have to catch up. Haha” I said.

“Ala…be yourself. Just read what you enjoy. Tak payah nak ikut orang lain kata apa.”

I chuckled, outwardly.

But my mind was struck by the phrase of ‘be  yourself’. Because, ‘be yourself’ is something I had debated on and off with myself and I have come to the realization that the phrase ‘be yourself’ is so arbitrary and can be downright confusing and thus it needs further clarification, in my opinion.


My friends and colleagues are well-versed of my love for mysteries and thrillers and adventures. I love books that revolve around the theme of battling evil force. I adore the whole process of  solving problems in ingenious ways at the last critical moment when you think there is no hope left. And when suddenly the protagonist accomplishes the impossible, that is the euphoric part when a rush of dopamine is released in my brain and I get that high that all drug addicts yearn for! Adventurous fiction a’la Indiana Jones is my cocaine.

Skilful hero, bad villain, a beguiling mystery, an enormous problem to solve, effortful toiling… then AT LAST success comes in the form of the death of the villain when harmony and order and justice are restored. 

This is why thrillers and adventures are addictive. I am part of the story that I read.

It’s very formulaic…but it works with me. Books like these taught me that unless it is a happy ending, it is not yet an ending. So in real life, when I come across something sad or something disappointing, I would remember that this is not the end. Something good for me is yet to come. Books like these help me define my notion of justice and why we must ensure that it prevails in the end. So this is how I justify my love of fiction. It is motivating!

Formulaic stuff like this is called commercial fiction! A happy ending is a must! When I read commercial fiction, this is what I want! Pure entertainment! And if it also happens to give me some new info or some interesting titbits that would then become part of my semantic memory, well, all the better. Because I can then pretend that I am reading it for the knowledge as well. Hahah (Think Da Vinci Code. It is formulaic and a commercial fiction. But this book incorporates a lot of facts about anagrams, fibonacci Sequence, history of Christianity, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and The Lourve Museum. I honestly say I learned a lot when I read Da Vinci Code even though it is a commercial fiction.  It is full of facts, but at the same time it is fast-paced and full of exciting adventure). But no matter what facts they include into their plot, the main point of commercial fiction is entertainment, not knowledge or self-reflection! For Malay readers, think Ahadiat Akashah (as opposed to A. Samad Said).

Now literature (sastera) is different. The main point of literature is to educate and to criticize some element in the society that the author finds repugnant (kritik sosial). The author of literature hopes to trigger a paradigm change in the society. Happy ending is not guaranteed. In fact, sad ending is more effective! And most of the time, the ending is in the form of a cliffhanger and you get a feeling of things not being properly resolved. (And I feel unsatisfied! I hate that unresolved feelings. I rather have a sad ending than an unresolved ending. But maybe that’s the point! If most readers feel unsatisfied, then maybe we will get fired up, talk about it in forums, and at last campaign for a change in the society. So the author has reached his/her purpose: to make the readers feel so unsatisfied and so angry that they just have to talk about it in forums.)  Most literatures are really slow-paced. Where in commercial fiction the conflicts are usually external, the conflicts in literatures are internal. Where the character in commercial fiction is this perfectly handsome, intelligent and skilful hero, the character in literature will be flawed and the character will struggle internally to overcome his flaws. (Think Salina by A. Samad Said. Salina is the protagonist who is also a prostitute!!) So you see, some characters in literature are not always hero material. So it’s difficult for us as readers to admire and fall in love with this person. Unlike in commercial fiction, the protagonist here is not at all perfect; he is only human in this literature. And that’s just not good enough for us. (Well, at least AT FIRST, such protagonist won’t be good enough for us. But as you mature into your reading, you will grow to like this sort of protagonist. This protagonist is real and human, and perhaps as you grow older, you can relate to such a character. Protagonists in literatures are people like hawkers, farmers, taxi drivers…rather than CIA agents/ Secret Service Agents, SWAT agents/ successful CEOs etc etc. So really…they are NOT as exciting, but they are REAL every day people. As time goes by, you can possibly make yourself accept a hero that may not be so handsome, and not so successful, but just ordinary people struggling with life’s trials and tribulations. But remember, AT FIRST, it is so damn difficult to finish the book! But you just have to HANG IN THERE and finish it!)

So, reading literature is a struggle! You may not like the plot or the character because it is not entertaining enough and too real to be a source of fun escapism. (And most people read as a form of escapism. To relax from reality! And thus, literature feels torturous when compared to commercial fiction)

If you are a young reader and still struggling with reading literature, don’t worry! It’s normal. I STILL struggle. I have to MAKE myself read literature and Thank God I have this reading forum that would motivate me to do so. Like the character in a literature, I have a weakness too. I feel jealous of  anyone who seems to read better than I do (haha) and I want to compete against them. It’s really ridiculous of me…but heck, I have flaws!

So when I force myself to read literature, does it mean I am NOT being myself?
I don’t think so.

I AM being myself. Well, my competitive self, at least! 

If I had said “I love literature only… and commercial fictions are beneath my notice because they are so awfully trashy!”,… well, THEN I am lying and not being myself. But I did not say that. I fully acknowledge that literatures are hard to swallow and I have to force myself. So really, this IS myself. Haha.

But, this is the problem, you see! Is ‘being yourself’ means following your every inclination and not opposing your whims and desires at all…and not bothering to improve yourself at all and just remain the same… because you want to ‘be yourself’? Is that what we are supposed to do in life? Are we going to demand that people love us ‘just the way we are’ because we are just being ourselves?

I have problems with that concept. To quote Alanis Morisette, we will love you just the way you are if you are perfect. But no one is… so… well…the concept of ‘be yourself and never change’ becomes problematic in my analytical INTP mind.



If I had come across the phrase ‘be yourself’ when I was a child, I might use it against my parents. But I don’t think it would be effective.


“Kak Ngah, pi study”

“Studying is not myself. At the moment, myself wanna play. If I force myself to read academic books, then it means I am not being  true to myself. If you force me to study now, that means you are not accepting me for myself” Hahaha. 

I think if I ever said that, my father would quip  “Tak apa. You can be yourself. Cuma… ‘yourself’ nanti kena rotan jer lah. But yes, go ahead and be yourself. You have that option, of course,”


You see? Maybe even my childhood self knew that the ‘be yourself’ rhetoric is too wishy-washy and arbitrary to be used in an argument (or else you bet I would have used it with my parents). Whatever valid argument out there for me not to study, I have used them. But I never used the ‘be myself’ angle with my parents. Because deep inside I knew, it was too stupid to say something like that (and I know how the argument will end up. Just like the above dialogue, that’s how! Haha)

The problem that I have with the ‘be yourself’ catchphrase is because it can be misapplied or taken advantage of, you see. A murderer and a thief would say “I am just being myself when I commit that crime.”

A cheater would tell his wife “When I fell in love with the other woman, I couldn’t help it. You might think I am cheating on you, but with myself, I am being true!”. Hahhaha.

What would the world turn into, then?

So you see, ‘be yourself’ catchphrase is very flawed at its core. It doesn’t stand detailed scrutiny. It is vague! It is fragile! And perhaps, should not be propagated!

We should not always be ourselves. Not in the way that they are promoting it.

We must first understand which part of ourselves are we talking about.


You see, according to Sigmund Freud, self/psyche can be divided into your id, your ego and your superego (tripartite).

Id: operates on instinct and pleasure principle. We want what we want and the reality be damn! This is me! What I want is unrealistic and selfish but I still want it.

(eg: I want to eat ice cream all the time. I don’t want to have to diet.)

Superego: this aspect of ourselves incorporates the values and moral of the society and is learned from our parents, our teachers or our religious upbringing.

(eg: I support the value of healthy diet because I am a doctor and I have learned it in med school that eating healthy is good for your health)

Ego: The job of the ego is to balance the demands of the id (our instinct to seek pleasure, to eat whatever we like) and the demands of the superego (our moral values and what we have learned.)

(eg: we then decide to eat regular meals rather than go on an extreme diet in order to satisfy our id’s need for good portion of food. To satisfy our superego, we reduce our ice cream intake to only once a week and exercise regularly. Id doesn’t get everything id wants. Superego also doesn’t get the ideal that superego wants. Instead, ego make them compromise and meet in the middle.)

Your superego and your Id will constantly influence your ego. Your ego will have to decide which way it should skew towards.

So, if ONE DAY, you decide to go on a diet, that is your superego winning against your id. Your superego is STILL yourself. So don’t go around thinking “Wow, I feel so fake and not myself when I am munching this carrot and celery. This is not right! I should be true to myself. I should just eat that double cheese burger because THAT IS MY REAL SELF!” 

Do you understand what I am trying to say?

Your id, your superego and your ego…they are ALL you and yourself. Just because you ignore your id and satisfy your superego, doesn’t mean you are not being yourself. In fact, ignoring your id makes you the better person.

The better self.

And the good news is your id can be trained to be more in tune with your superego. Initially all diets and exercise are hard to do (that is your id being in revolt and rebelling. Ignoring your id can cause tension and stress, initially). But after awhile, your id will follow through and eventually your id will easily accept the need for things to go the superego way most of the time.

On certain days, your id would win against your superego. You would eat a lot of ice cream and binge on junk food. When that happens, don’t go around saying “I am just being myself when I binge eat.” Instead tell yourself, that I am being the ‘id part’ of myself today. The superego part of myself lost today.

And that’s okay. Id must be allowed to win too, occasionally. It relaxes us. 

You can indulge your id occasionally, as long as you don’t do that by abusing the rights of others.

Below is another example of how id and superego influence your overall self:

Id: I am bored with my one wife. I want to have sex with more than one woman.

Superego: But Islam prohibits Zina.

Id: Well, I can have four wives,

Superego:  But as a husband, I must be responsible financially for all my four wives. I must be equal to all of them in terms of nafkah. I must lead them to the right path and be responsible for all their sins. 

Ego intervenes at this point: The reality is, I cannot afford four wives. But I might just be able to manage two wives in the fair and responsible manner that Islam stipulates. So I will have two wives, instead. (ego will try to satisfy both id and superego. But whether id or superego has the greater influence on your ego, that depends on many external factors and circumstances.)

In this example, if the id has a far more powerful influence than the superego, the man just might not bother to marry other women and simply hire prostitutes to satisfy his id. Lagi senang, kan?! If the superego (moral) is not well developed, the id wins easily and he can commit zina without feeling any guilt.  Is it then okay for him to simply say “I am just being myself?” 

Hell, no! You are just being the ‘id part’ of yourself!

Id is your nafs! So be careful when you say ‘be yourself’.The psychiatry MO in me might just ask “which part of yourself? You could have chosen your superego self to express, but you had chosen your id self to express instead. And then you go around using the convenient catchphrase of ‘being yourself’ as though that justifies everything.”

The phrase ‘be yourself’ is problematic because it doesn’t specify which part of yourself you should be! Your id…or your superego? And this arbitrary phrase can be misapplied by unprincipled crooks to justify whatever they do.


In my case…

My Id: I love entertaining books that are fast-paced, adventurous and fun. I feel relaxed. 

My Superego: But this sort of books that you like do not have much intellectual value, right? It is so ‘lagha’. God gives you brain NOT for you to waste it in fantasy adventure and la-la land. Your fiction doesn’t change the paradigm of the society. It’s fun, of course. But it’s empty calories. Why can’t you read something that feed your brain and nourish your soul? Read non-fiction, why don’t you? Those are factual and real!

My Ego: Okay, calm down, id and superego. Let’s compromise. Let’s read literature instead. It is still a fiction, but based on reality. It gives you something to think about without the boring academic feel to it. You don’t have to feel guilty about not feeding your brain properly if you read literature.

So, my point is: whether I am reading commercial fiction or literature or even academic books…all of them are MYSELF.

I indulge my id with commercial fiction. I satisfy my superego with literature and obligatory academic books (when the exam is near). Satisfying my superego improves my knowledge and my writing. Satisfying my id allows me to relax and recharge. 

So when I said I had to force myself to read literature, what I really meant to say was I had to force ‘my id self’ to read and enjoy literature. My superego didn’t need any forcing because that value is already within me. I just need my superego to be strong enough to wrestle the controlling rein from my id. And after awhile, when I do it often enough, my id would accept that literature is a superior reading material and we should read it more often. 

The take home message is: Your id can be TRAINED. Your id can be TAMED if you make it a practice to allow your superego to win most of the time. Eventually, it gets easier. It does.


So the next time I said I am being myself, I will say that phrase with the conscious awareness that the ‘self’ is FLUID and CHANGEABLE at any moment, depending on how good and pious I am feeling at that time and depending on which part of my self dominates my ego at that point in time.

And that’s normal! That’s human. 

So relax guys! Don’t feel fake and pretentious when we choose to rise above our natural (id) inclination. That’s what jihad is about; a struggle to force our id into submission.

May we all have the strength to be the better part of ourselves, most of the time (if not always). May Allah reduce the gap between our id and our superego so that doing good and being nice become easy. Amin.


Hahaha! I love the quote above!

Until next time, folks!

Disclaimer: This is merely my amateurish take on pop psychology. Haha. I am not an expert or anything. But INTPs are annoyed by vague, wishy-washy stuff like ‘be yourself’ and we have the need to break it down and analyze it to death. No one else would bother to analyze this catchphrase beyond its superficial application. I mean, it is not worth the time to mull the matter over. It’s just an ordinary adage, after all. But this is how INTP use their brain. This is our eternal problem. Even as we are annoyed by vague, arbitrary, wishy-washy stuff like this, we are also fascinated by the thought of how we can attack and crucify the matter to smithereens. We are fascinated by contradictions, inconsistencies between theories and reality. Any type of dissonance holds our attention until we have thought the matter over and come to a decision. It is, alas, a never ending passion. So here you go. This is how INTPs spend their time thinking about abstract stuff that is not that important in real life. The only reason we STILL do it is because we enjoy it. 

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