Is it just me, or does it feel like the idea of authenticity has become inauthentic; like it’s just another way we fall short, another trait we don’t have enough of? When people dislike each other now, they label one another as “fake.” I know that in my experience, some of the people who have most adamantly professed the ideal of being “real” have been unable to connect to others or to admit how they harm those around them. Like so many other ideals, the purity of the word authenticity has been diluted by the mass-reproduction of it in the media. The idea becomes twisted and confused. I have become disillusioned by phrases such as “do you” or “I’m just protecting my energy.” It seems that while the media, as well as individuals, profess authenticity, the divisions of people have become wider, people have become lonelier and less patient, and our mental health has suffered. I want to be clear here, however, that authenticity is one of my core values. I believe in prioritizing myself and in protecting my “energy.” It is my hope that we can separate ourselves from the judgements and opinions of others and develop clarity around this ideal because the truth is, authenticity is not only a path to joy, fulfillment, and healthier relationships; it is the only path toward those things.
At this point I feel the need, as I often do, to pause and clarify. We need a working definition of authenticity in order to continue this conversation productively (I like to imagine I’m having a conversation with my reader). My definition of authentic is that I trust my own authority to decide what is true for me, and I ACT, or make my decisions, based on MY truth. I am the creator and owner of my truth, and the authority in my life.
At this point, there are two important questions to be answered:
1. What makes authenticity challenging?
Most of us were taught to "fit in" and the price of standing out was to stand alone.
I’m so glad you asked. There are several pieces to the authenticity puzzle. Each creates a unique and difficult challenge. First, and most critical, is that most of us don’t really know ourselves all that well. I know that is a big claim, so let me explain. Most people derive a sense of self from a collection of ideas and beliefs that were programmed into them from the world around them. What did your parents or original caregivers tell you about who you are? How did they treat you when you made a mistake? How did they relate to one another, to you, to friends and to society? Possibly even more important, what were you punished for? Ignored for? Rewarded for? What did you have to do to get approval and love from the people around you? If you think about it, none of these things make you, you. In a very healthy family, there will be a period of questioning, a period of rebellion, and a period of reconciliation and decision making regarding what you believe. This means a healthy teen will look at everything mentioned here, as well as family values, religion, relationship behaviors, etc, and will be supported through the process of questioning and rebelling. This is clearly not the norm. Most of us were taught to “fit in” and the price of standing out was to stand alone.
This leads me to the second challenge. A person who does not know and love themself cannot ever support another person in their most powerful and glorious authentic self. People who do not love themselves will have actions based on fear. For parents, there is fear that if their children do not fit in, there will be pain. There is fear that if their children believe differently from them, they will be hurt, be punished by God, be unprepared when the world abandons them, and on an on and on. Friends will be afraid you will outshine them or be hurt by others or abandon them. People who do not know and love themselves cannot tolerate disagreement. They cannot tolerate their world views being challenged. They cannot tolerate challenges to the house of cards image that they are white knuckling in their own minds because if they are wrong, then they aren’t real. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it can never support your authenticity.
The third MAJOR challenge in authenticity is that I must be real with myself, first and foremost. I must ask MYSELF real questions. Why do I believe that? How do I feel about this? Do I have enough information to even have an opinion on this subject? Have I truly listened to people who disagree? Is this relationship supportive to me? Why do I stay?
Last, at least the last I will mention here, is that once I KNOW myself, the next step is to ACT. This means I admit to myself my true reasons. This means I speak my truth when I may face rejection. This means I acknowledge when others are using me, or when I am using them. This means I have values-aligned action, and when I don’t, I don’t justify it. This means I acknowledge my own pride, my own misjudgments and misdeeds, and every time I have allowed abuse of myself or of others.
Authenticity is NOT for the faint of heart.
So here we are at our second question:
2. This sounds painful and difficult. Why should I cultivate authenticity?
Authenticity gives us the ability to show up for ourselves and for others as a whole person.
I want to tell you the story about the moment I realized the importance of authenticity. I was 19, and I was engaged to a person who had become very psychologically abusive. I won’t go into details other than to say I walked around in a fog. I felt toxic and my already fragile sense of self was crumbling. In the fog and the pain, I had a moment of clarity as I looked at him sleeping next to me. I realized that the intense fear I was feeling was because I had no idea who he was. I realized that he could be anyone, anything. I did not know how far he would go to harm me, and I did not have any idea how deep his lies went. All I knew was that I was afraid of him, in that moment, I had a profound realization that the only way for any of us to know and trust one another is if we speak our truth, always, and if our behaviors reflect that truth to the best of our abilities. Looking back at this I realize that he could not do anything but lie, because he could not know himself, just as I could not protect myself because I did not have the profound self-love that motivates courageous acts on my own behalf. I was unsafe because we were incapable of relating authentically to one another.
Authenticity gives us the ability to show up for ourselves and for others as a whole person. The development of authenticity allows us to truly listen to others because nothing they say can ever be a threat to us. It allows us to express our truth because, while rejection always hurts, we will not crumble under its weight. We can trust others because we trust our own intuition when it tells us people are unsafe, and we can act courageously on our own behalf. We can handle disagreement because we know that we can disagree with others and still love them, and that we are loveable even if we disagree. We can hold others accountable and give grace in equal measure, because we understand ourselves as flawed beings worthy of forgiveness, and at the same time accountable for the impact of our decisions. We can express and receive love freely because we know at the end of the day, we belong to ourselves, and we will not abandon or reject ourselves. We are home, no matter where we are.