Being True to Yourself: Acting from Freedom, not Obligation

to thine own self be true

To thine own self be true…

I’ve been writing a lot about self-esteem these past several weeks. This week I want to continue the theme of being real by encouraging you to honor and be true to who you are. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet a father gives his son some advice about shaping his life and character. “This above all. To thine own self be true; and it shall follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Being true to ourselves means learning to listen to our own intuition, needs, feelings, etc. and making choices that are affirming and in our own best self interest. There are two contexts from which people live:

  • Please others
  • “Have to” or “ought to”
  • Control external
  • Unclear boundaries
  • Passive
  • Victim/pawn
  • True to self
  • “Want to” or “choose to”
  • Control internal
  • Clear boundaries
  • Active
  • Source of own experience

The pull of obligation

Many people live an entire life time from the context of obligation. Their lives are a script handed them by somebody else (parents, church, society) in which they read their lines and act out their part but without much sense of their own agency.

The motivation in obligation is a strong sense of “have to” and “ought to.” People get up in the morning, make breakfast, go to work, attend a staff meeting, prepare a report, because they “have to.” They may play with the kids, visit their parents, do a home budget or attend church because they “should.” It is what is expected of good and honorable people. Control is external. They are simply reacting to the demands placed upon them by the job, kids, boss, spouse, IRS. There isn’t a lot of enjoyment in obligation. People go through the motions of living but experience life as routine, mundane, even burdensome.

The context of Freedom

Freedom, on the other hand, is being true to oneself. It means that you put yourself into the driver’s seat of your life. No one “makes” you get out of bed, go to work, participate staff meeting, attend church, play with your kids, or pay taxes. If you do those things you do them because you want to or choose to. Of course, that doesn’t mean you necessarily “feel” like doing them all the time. But then, you aren’t governed by momentary needs and feelings. Instead, you’re governed by your best long-term self interest.

This can sound self-centered although it is not. It is, rather, self-caring. It is caring enough about yourself to be the source of our own decisions and actions. Being true to yourself requires that you make decisions that are strengthening and in your best long-term self interest. This does not mean shirking duty or responsibilities to others. However, it means doing them for the right reasons–out of choice rather than obligation. It is, in fact, on this basis that healthy, positive relationships can be established. When people accept responsibility for themselves and are willing to allow others to do the same then they can interact without control and manipulation but from mutual admiration and respect.

Did this article trigger any thoughts? Share them with me. Write a comment below.



  1. Steve C

    Being true to ourselves requires knowing who we are. How are we supposed to make that discovery when we’ve lived our entire lives, in some respects, guided by other peoples’ imposed scripts for our identities?

    • Roger Allen

      Great question, Steve. It takes a lot of self awareness and reflection to know who we are and sort out the script from the authentic. We need to learn to listen and, perhaps more importantly, trust our hearts and deeper intuition. One way we do this is by pausing before making a decision to reflect upon this question–is my response being true to what is deepest in me or am I acting to please others?

      I’d like to hear what others have to say.

  2. Charles

    Others expectations of us can be effective guides and help us develop up to a point, even stretch us further than what we would have by ourselves. The trick is finding out when those expectations begin holding us back rather than helping us out. Thanks Roger!

  3. Roger Allen

    Hi Charles,

    Good point. We don’t live in a social vacuum. Our relationships are incredibly important, including others perceptions and expectations. I think the key is to make sure we have the right role models and conform to expectations that empower us to grow.

  4. Michelle

    I am so caught up in not hurting others feelings when I decline an invitation or really don’t want to spend time with someone who wants to spend time with me, that I have been isolating to avoid the possibility of having to repeatedly decline an invitation. I realize this is wrong yet choosing what I want to do (have more solitude) is almost always contrary to what friends expect of me.


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