"Just be yourself" might be the most common advice given to anyone who's nervous about going on a date. And I get it, it really might feel like an encouraging thing to say. The underlying meaning is, "I think you're awesome just the way you are, and others will, too." That's great, and the person who said it to you probably really means it.
But does that make it helpful? I think not.
Here are five reasons why:
1. It's a counterproductive instruction.
The very thing that's attractive about "being yourself" is that you are not aware of yourself when you're in that state. The advice to "just be yourself" then has the opposite effect, since it puts your attention back on you -- exactly where you don't want it!
"Being yourself" is not something that you can do on command, because you obviously have no idea how you behave when you don't think about how you behave!
Try this instead: The whole point of going on a date is to get to know someone else, not to think about you. So instead of thinking about how you are behaving and trying to make sure that you are "being yourself," address your attention to the other person, and the situation you are in.
Being curious and present, and immersing yourself in the moment, are great ways to get out of your own head.
2. Your brain will work against you.
To fix your attention on something that usually happens automatically (like blinking or being yourself) will mess that automatic process up, simply because the brain is not designed to consciously help with that. The effort gets in the way.
This is why we often make clumsy mistakes that would never happen otherwise when we feel nervous. You automatically already know how to "just be yourself," but if you make a conscious project out of it, you're outsourcing the job in a way that won't actually help you perform it better.
Try this instead: Don't get in the way of automatic skills like using your hands, constructing sentences and making eye contact. Instead, trust your ability do so without thinking about it.
You do this perfectly in every other situation, and the only reason it might feel a little stiff on a date is because the situation feels new to you. The more dates you go on, the more comfortable you will become.
3. It creates a downward spiral.
Most of us aren't aware of the cognitive "flaw" described above, so we keep trying to monitor ourselves, even when it's counterproductive. This creates a huge downward spiral -- when it doesn't work, we try harder still to keep ourselves in order, which makes us even more self-conscious, self-absorbed and awkward.
Every time someone tells us to "just be ourselves," we will try it all over again -- and fail, because that's simply not how the mind works.
Try this instead: If you find yourself in this spiral, acknowledge it and accept that you are nervous and that that's not something you can or should "fix." It's a part of who you are, and nothing you need to hide or be ashamed of.
In fact, the more OK you are with being nervous, the less nervous you will feel. But if you try to fight it, it will get worse.
4. It keeps you stuck.
When a friend tells you to "just be yourself," they probably don't know what you are like on a date. Even if you are the most awesome, relaxed, charming, smart and funny version of yourself with your friends, maybe that's not how you are on a date!
When we get nervous, self-conscious or afraid of being hurt (dating is a vulnerable thing!), we sometimes start to behave in strange ways to hide or ease our discomfort.
This includes self-sabotaging patterns like becoming uncharmingly cocky, holding ourselves back in a way we never would with friends or putting on a mask and trying to be liked instead of focusing on finding out if we like the other person.
This is not our authentic self; it's based on fear-based strategies to protect the heart. If "being yourself" includes self-sabotaging strategies like these, the advice to "just be yourself" will keep these patterns in place instead of helping you to break free from them.
Try this instead: Become aware of the strategies you use to "protect" yourself when you get nervous or fearful -- and the consequences that they have (hint: protecting yourself from hurt also protects you from love).
Find one small thing that you can do on your next date to start the process of slowly breaking the pattern. Maybe express more/less of your opinions or emotions, depending on what you usually do, or show sides of yourself that your friends get to see but you hide from the people you date.
Choose something that makes you feel challenged but not scared, practice it and see the difference.
5. It's a lot to ask!
"Who am I?" is one of the biggest existential questions, and it's actually a lot to ask that you even know who you are. But let's assume that you do -- it's still a vulnerable thing to show yourself to the world. Especially to someone you just met, who you like and who has the power to hurt or reject you.
To be fair, "just being yourself" is actually something that works really well -- but for someone who's struggling with it, just telling them to do it won't help. It's like telling someone at the gym to "just be strong" instead of giving them a workout plan. It won't help them.
Try this instead: Give yourself time and space to figure out who you are, and then, step by step, start to share it with others. Maybe for you it's about expressing your opinions more clearly, or your emotions. Or maybe it's being more/less physical as a way to connect in new ways, not just the ones you already feel comfortable with.
I am sure there is more to you than what you are currently showing to the world. Don't hide it, because the world needs it and you deserve to be free to express yourself fully!
Remember to be kind to yourself, aware of how your brain works and proud of your progress.
About the Author: Linnea Molander is a dating coach, freelance journalist and blogger for Match.com.