What does it mean to be authentic? Answers vary based on individual values and needs. Our desire for authenticity reflects our desire to create something more in our lives.
For example, if someone values relationships but they can’t tell that friend they have a crush on, how they really feel, then they’ll see their “real” selves as someone who can be open. They’ll define authenticity as openness and honesty. If someone values freedom, but feels stuck in their job or their life, then they’ll see their authentic self as someone who follows their dreams. This person will define authenticity as being true to themselves.
Definitions of authenticity have different inherent assumption. Some of these assumptions in real life make achieving authenticity almost impossible.
Definitions of Authenticity
Definition 1: Authenticity as being yourself
Assumption: That it’s possible not to be yourself
You’re a bit shy. You want to be more confident so you can talk to that cute girl or boy that you’ve been crushing on for months. You like the person you are. You consider yourself nice and considerate, but in some areas you wish you could be more the type of person who can go after what the want.
So what is the authentic you in this example? Is the real you the shy person or is it the more confident person you want to be?
If authenticity is defined as being who you are now, wouldn’t that mean just accepting yourself as the shy quiet person that wants to be notice even if this makes you unhappy? If authenticity is being the more confident person, then does that mean you’re not being yourself currently.
Being yourself is not an either or choice between who you are now and who you want to be. You are always you. Authenticity in this context is about acceptance. It’s accepting who you are and your wants.
The problem I find with this definition is that there’s no impetus for change. Accepting yourself and your wants doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving your wants. So if you’re unhappy with your situation now, being authentic in this context doesn’t require taking action.
Definition 2: Authenticity as being true to yourself
Assumption: A person doesn’t have conflicting values.
Say for example, honesty is one of your highest values. And another one of your highest values is harmony.
Someone close to you introduces you to their new significant other. You find this person completely obnoxious. You see that person treats your close friend terribly but your friend doesn’t see that or your friend dismisses it as minor.
If authenticity is being true to yourself, would that mean you are honest and tell you friend that this person they’re seeing is bad for them or do you keep quiet and maintain harmony and be there for you friend when the relationship goes badly?
What if your highest values are friendship and treating yourself kindly? This new significant other not only treats your friend horribly but they’re pretty obnoxious to you. Your friend and their significant other are always together these days. Is authenticity spending time with your friend (friendship) or avoiding her to keep away from the obnoxious significant other (treating yourself kindly)?
We run into situations daily where we have to choose between our highest values like staying at our job or school (security) or running off the another city or country (freedom). Whenever we have to make these choices between values we don’t feel more authentic, we just feel we made the best choice we could at the time.
The problem that I’ve notice with authenticity defined as being true to yourself is that it doesn’t always make you a better person. Relationships tend to suffer when being true to yourself means choosing your wants first. At a certain point being true to yourself becomes selfish and you have to want to make selflessness a part of who you are.
Definition 3: Being your best self.
Assumption: Your best self is a fixed state and doesn’t change.
When I was eight years old, I wanted to be an knight fighting dragons. That’s who I saw my best self to be. Since I’m not a knight currently, does that mean I’m not being authentic?
Often times, being authentic means looking into yourself to find your purpose and letting it lead you. This assumes that you know your purpose and that it’s fixed. There’s a reason why so many college students change majors. They thought their purpose was one thing when the declared their major and realized that the profession they chose didn’t fit. So if you change your major were you not being authentic because you weren’t following your true purpose?
What if authenticity is being your best self at the time with what you currently know. So if you wanted to be a doctor and were studying it then you’re being authentic. If you changed your mind and took action and changed your major, you’re being authentic by changing your major.
In this context, authenticity is all about action. If something bugs you and you speak up, you’re being authentic. If you hate your job, being authentic means quitting. If you don’t care for societal conventions, you ignore them and live the way you want to live.
However, authenticity as action is limited by the practicality of taking that action. Not everyone can quit their job on a dime, so does that mean that putting up with work to pay your bills means you’re not being authentic? Authenticity precedes change. You have to be authentic first in order to make changes instead of making changes so you can be authentic. In order to have more you first have to be more. It’s almost impossible to do it the other way around.
The Purpose of Authenticity
The problem I find with authenticity is that there are so many concepts but very few methodologies defined to apply those concept. If you want to be that awesome, brilliant, better you, well how do you go about that and does that mean you’re living in-authentically until you are that better you? That seems disempowering to me.
It feels like we’re living in an age of authenticity where everyone wants to be more authentic as if authenticity is that missing key to everything that’s holding us back from greatness. Like so many things, we have concrete problems that we’re trying to resolve with this vague concept of authenticity.
Tony Robbins said that we only want to change two things: what we do and how we feel. If we’re not living to our full potential, we hope that authenticity will motivate us to live life to its fullest. If we feel shy, we hope that authenticity will lead to confidence. In other words, the action of wanting authenticity is supposed to lead to action. However I find that wanting something doesn’t necessarily lead to doing.
To me, authenticity is a state of connection to ourselves without the filters and projections that we use to protect ourselves. Authenticity shouldn’t be a goal but guide to reaching those things we desire.
Authenticity as Positive Emotion
I’ve started defining authenticity as existing in my positive emotional states. Curiosity, love, connection, boldness, empathy, etc. are a small sampling of some of those emotional states. When I feel those things, I feel as if I’m being my real self.
This doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to feel sad or lonely or afraid or bored, but feeling those emotions and constantly existing in those conditions are completely different. Constantly feeling bored doesn’t make me feel authentic. If we’ve lived a long time in our disempowering emotional states, we begin to feel more and more disconnected to who we are. It’s only by reconnecting to our positive emotional states do we get back our power.
Here’s the methodology that works for me:
- Write down all the positive emotional states that I want to feel each day.
- Take an action that will make me feel that emotion.
- Bask in that emotion for as long as it lasts whether it’s a minute or an hour.
- Let go of trying to use that positive emotion to achieve something.
One of my positive emotions is boldness. Yesterday, my day job catered lunch from Noodles and we had 5 trays of left overs that end up sitting in our fridge a few days and then thrown away. This has happened for years,. People have a little more the next day but we waste so much food. So instead of worrying about what people would think, I packed enough for myself and my family so we wouldn’t have to cook dinner that night.
As I was packing the leftovers into the Tupperware, I felt bold for not wondering if co-workers thought I was greedy or not a team player. I don’t have to zipline or rock climb to be bold, both of which I’ve done in the last month. It’s the small things like asking a stranger to dance. Even if they politely decline, for those 10 seconds I felt bold.
It’s not about trying to feel good all the time because if someone rejects us, however politely, we’ll still feel bad. It’s not about avoiding feeling bad because sadness during a grieving process is natural and positive. Sometimes connection with my wife means talking about hard issues that make us feel hurt or angry. The objective is to feel all our positive emotions each day. The purpose is to build up our emotional repertoire, to expand our choices in what makes us feel good and to be able to achieve those states easily because we’ve been practicing every day.
Eventually, as we take small action to feel positive emotions for brief periods, this leads to taking bigger actions to be in those positive emotions for longer periods. Most of the time, my actions to feel a certain emotion is spur of the moment without some goal attached to it. However, those actions tend to take me in the right direction and leads me a little closer to who I want to be.