how to be yourself

How to Be Yourself

How many times have you mentioned that you were nervous about a job interview or a presentation and your well-meaning friend says, “Just be yourself!” That’s so sweet that they think highly enough of you to recommend that you be the person you are with them. But the advice doesn’t work.

So thanks anyway. I can’t be myself when I’m in front of a large audience. I can’t be myself when I’m sitting across from someone who can control my future. And I can’t be myself when I’m on a first date with someone adorable. So thanks for your excellent advice.

OMG, why can’t I be myself in these high-stakes situations?

I love to solve mysteries for people. That’s one of my favorite things. “Why can’t I be myself when I am standing in front of an audience?” Hmm. Mystery. “Why can’t I find anything to say when I’m on a first date. I just talked my best friend’s ear off, not 20 minutes ago.” Ooh! Another mystery! “Why do I draw a blank or talk so fast when I’m interviewing for a new job?” Mysteries abound!

how to be yourself

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Mystery solved

Your brain perceives high-stakes situations as a threat, and it puts your body into fight or flight. Your primitive brain shuts down your prefrontal cortex, closes up your throat, and gives you only two options: You can run or put up your dukes. Those are two options, unfortunately not doable in these situations.

More on why you get nervous when you talk.

(Speech therapist tip: Don’t open up the toy cabinet for your 2-year-old and say, “have at it!” Take out the play-doh and the firetruck and ask him which one he wants. It keeps his brain organized and still allows him to feel in control. It’s a win-win.)

How to Sound Smart


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How to be yourself in high-stakes situations

We must combat fight-or-flight. Since human evolution takes millions of years, we don’t have time to wait for our bodies to catch up. We have to take action now. 

  1. Learn relaxation exercises. (Mine are the best.) You’ll want to stop your shoulders from heading up to your ears. Release the tension in your face and mouth.
  2. Use abdominal breathing at all times. Not just in yoga class. Abdominal breathing means your stomach goes out when you breathe in and in when you breathe out.
  3. Open up your throat. Keep your throat wide open. There’s a reason people say that someone is “choked up” or “feeling verklempt.” They can’t speak due to emotion. High emotion causes fight-or-flight, thereby closing up your throat. Ineffective in interviews, presentations, meetings, first dates, etc. By opening your throat you not only reclaim access to your pre-frontal cortex so you think straight but it makes your voice sound confident and authoritative.
  4. Love your audience. We get nervous when we are worried about what other people think about us. “Do they think I’m dumb?!” “Am I a fraud?!” It honestly doesn’t matter what they believe. And no, they don’t think that! Be concerned only with providing them with the information you have that can help them.

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So the next time someone says, “Just be yourself!” you can solve mysteries for them. Explain to them about their primitive brain and prefrontal cortex. And if they have a 2-year-old, give them the toy trick. Tell them Ita Olsen told you. You’re welcome.

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18 thoughts on “How to Be Yourself”

  1. Ita, I’m blown away by your blog. I’ve found myself here many times just searching for solutions to my issues. I report to the CEO and I get a little nervous. He tries to rush me along. This is almost a new thing for me the last few year. You’re right. I’m in high-stakes situations, trying to perform like my normal, talented 🙂 self. It’s harder to do with teams to lead and high level execs to report to.
    I took your voice spa online class and the relaxation exercises alone helped me tremendously.

    1. I appreciate that, Mary Ann. Yes, being in your relaxed place is the foundation for being an incredible communicator.

  2. A well written and easy to understand article! I have been also told, many times, ” just be yourself”. But, the frozen me is no use to my audience!
    You address the issue directly. The situation is introduced immediately, the next paragraph is the reason and the last paragraph is an action plan. Perfect!
    I have seen many articles on this particular issue and many of the authors become verbose and technical, and loses the reader quite easily.
    Thank you. Well done, Ita!

  3. My mom always says that to me. I can’t be mad at her but I become infuriated inside 😀
    Your solution makes more sense, thank you!

  4. Loving your audience is such a great tip! I catch myself in my own head wondering if people like me or think I’m dumb or not qualified. That’s self sabotage!

  5. So true! I always hear people say Be Yourself. I never understood why I couldn’t be myself. This makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  6. Brittney Pagan

    I loose my train of thought when I realize people are actually paying attention to what I’m saying. Awesome to know that there are simple things I can do to help my body calm in high stakes situations.

    1. That’s normal, losing your train of thought when people turn to listen to you. You feel on-the-spot. We have to learn to relax & breathe. Not just at that moment but as a habit. Taking my classes is the easiest way! The Voice Spa online course will change your life after the first lesson.

  7. Oh interesting, I hadn’t considered anxiety as stemming from a fight-or-flight response. This made me think of Hitch, when he encourages the guys he’s coaching to be themselves, but to be their *best* selves (less sloppy, etc.). Love the physical exercises you listed, I think it’s easy to ignore the physical aspect of all of this, but it makes such a huge difference.

    1. I had to look up Hitch–haha! It’s a movie. I’ll have to watch it!

      Yes, if we ignore the physical we cannot succeed as communicators with presence and authority.

  8. You are so generous! Thanks for all of the details and the how! I never see this It’s always push and sell. Or crazy boring, self-serving stories.

    I will implement these tips!

  9. Yep imposter syndrome is very real! When i’m around my intelligent colleagues i always feel like a fraud. But you are right, i need to love my audience and change my focus from them to the information i want to provide.

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