Seeking Authenticity

What does it mean for someone to be truly authentic? And how many people do you know actually fit that description? Do you feel that you’re authentic? Let’s take a look at what this word truly suggests and just what blocks us from achieving authenticity. 

Naturally, the word authenticity evokes an image of something pure or unadulterated. A letter of authenticity confirms that a certain object or work of art is not a counterfeit. The act of authenticating is a process of determining that something is indeed genuine, as it is purported to be. Experts receive training to authenticate precious objects, memorabilia, and documents, among other rare items. Yet we have no such method for ascertaining the authentic nature of people.

Short of being caught in a bold-faced lie or transgression, methods of determining an individual’s authenticity often go unexplored. One’s authentic nature is revealed in their ability to express and share what they think or feel in a relatively unadulterated form. Diplomacy, political correctness, false flattery, people pleasing, avoidance and silence may, in fact, be designed to mask the authentic, unfiltered self.

What does the dictionary have to say? Merriam-Webster defines authentic as a quality of being genuine and worthy of belief. Hence, a person who is completely trustworthy is deemed to be authentic. Yet to be genuine requires a certain transparency, whereby others can witness the unfiltered personality, without any masking.

Most of us are too concerned with what others think of us. As such, we may disguise or manipulate features of our personality to better assure that others aren’t judgmental or adversely reactive to us. If I worry about what others think of me, then I manipulate my personality and communication, either to seek approval or avoid disapproval. This masks my true or authentic self. Although this personality trait is commonplace, it is far removed from authenticity.

There appears to be an inverse correlation between one’s sensitivity to what others think of them and the ability to be authentic. Authenticity requires a genuine sharing of our inner self, irrespective of the consequences. Very often, our actions in a given moment are intended to avoid certain consequences. And so we alter or mitigate our communications or behavior to assure that those consequences won’t be negative or problematic. These tendencies diminish our authenticity and they constrain our growth and self-esteem. Being authentic requires a genuine sharing in the present moment. Ordinarily, though, our thoughts conspire in a tangle of excuses as to why we can’t do something. These are the consequences to which I was previously referring. This is the core of inauthenticity; our words or actions become disguised from their original intent since we choose to mask them. When this occurs, we literally subvert our genuine self.

We might think to ourselves, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a little white lie,” or, “I don’t want to hurt their feelings,” or, “They won’t really care about how I feel.” It’s actually much larger than that. The greater harm done may not be to the other but to our own self. When we alter our thoughts and feelings for the purpose of a safer communication, we limit our own development. It’s as if we suppress our authenticity in deference to a safe and non-challenging communication. This devolving from our more genuine self typically begins in childhood as we encounter any host of emotional challenges. If we experience abuse, disappointment, fear, or devaluation, we begin to alter our personality as we attempt to cope with these wounds. Although the coping mechanisms are adaptive at that time, over the course of a lifetime they become masks that distance us from a more actualized sense of self.

Troubled Relationships 

Even more problematically, the opportunity for a more meaningful dialogue that might generate a better understanding between parties becomes blocked, as the truth never quite gets revealed. And so the relationship remains stuck. Two individuals who struggle with their own authenticity unconsciously conspire toward an inauthentic relationship. In fact, this is one of the largest impediments to successful relationships. Two individuals struggling with their own authenticity wouldn’t likely experience a thriving relationship. Very often, what we might refer to as a troubled relationship is, in fact, a manifestation of the challenges each individual face in their own personal evolution, but just further projected onto the external relationship.

I am not suggesting that we be callous or insensitive to others’ feelings. Learning how to communicate challenging matters in a delicate and compassionate manner opens the pathway to an evolving relationship. And a commitment to personal evolution honors authenticity. When we devote ourselves to such a path, we actually cast off the burden of fear and anxiety about what others may think of us and begin to honor our own authenticity.

An authentic person may be sensitive to what others think yet choose not to subordinate themselves to the opinions or judgments of others. This is a key source of genuine self-esteem. You might begin to think of the departure from being genuine as a self-betrayal. And self-betrayal is a terribly destructive action, after all. It has many faces. Being a people pleaser or avoiding confrontation betrays your own authenticity, as you submerge yourself in deference to others. Conversely, being controlling or acting out in anger distances you from being genuine. In these circumstances, you may be more comfortable wearing the mask of anger than revealing your vulnerability. Fear and insecurity are often at the core of anger. As an aside, when people communicate their vulnerable feelings, others actually tend to listen, and validation becomes a possibility. Angry people may be feared or avoided, but they are seldom validated.

Genuine self-esteem requires avoiding self-betrayal. You can’t be true to yourself and betray your authenticity at the same time. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t act from compassion and generosity toward others, but you shouldn’t undermine yourself in the process.

It’s the exceptional individual who seeks authenticity. Much of the problem lies in the fact that being genuine is devalued in our culture, while success, achievement, and avoiding criticism are highly prized. Our prevailing cultural imperative does little to value authenticity. This goal appears nowhere in the curricula of our education. If our primary education provided coursework that taught us how to achieve emotional intelligence and the skill set of genuine communication, we might realign our priorities accordingly. The competitive spirit honors the winners, not the most sincere. And within that motif there is a belief that being authentic may impede success. Yet one need not preclude the other. If you untether yourself from insecurity and fear, you can set the stage for a self-empowered life. Freeing yourself from the tribulations of worrying about what others think of you emboldens you to be genuine.

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36 replies
  1. Thomas C.
    Thomas C. says:

    Mel, this is such an important paper! I have spent 60 years trying to undo the damage done early in life by an abusive mother. This seems to be a constant effort to maintain personal integrity – genuine authenticity, as you wrote. In my quest for sincere transparency I am continually struggling with anger – the defense mechanism to challenges from others. It is so much easier to lash out than to reveal the “weakness” of vulnerability and fear. I hope someday before my time is up to achieve this state of worth called authenticity. Thanks so much for helping to further untie this intricate knot.

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Thomas, what do you think might happen if you reconsidered what vulnerability means. If by your embracing vulnerability you actually empower yourself. You see when you invite in your vulnerability what you are essentially saying is that your relationship with your own self is more important than what others think. From that perspective vulnerable is actually strong. No one can hinder your authentic self. By reacting with anger, you’ve subordinated your self by your loss of balance. Anger is weak, vulnerable is strong. It’s a paradox.

      Reply
  2. Joan Robertson
    Joan Robertson says:

    Hi Mel,

    It seems that my entire life I have been at odds with society’s values and memes. It has only been within the last decade that I can express the reason why I have responded this way through teachings from Carl Jung, Daniel Goleman, and now you. All along, I have been heeding to my spirit’s calling, without fully understanding the process. I now realize that you and others have given me the vocabulary to communicate what I have been feeling and thinking. A sincere thanks to you.

    Joan Robertson

    Reply
    • Maria Taveras
      Maria Taveras says:

      Dear Joan,

      I’ve just read your comment of your discovery of how Carl Jung and others have given you a way of understanding what it meant for you to be authentic. You might like to visit my web site to see the process of how for me the search for authenticity took form. http://www.jungiantherapy.com. I hope this gives you more of an understanding of the difficulties inherent in finding our authentic Self.

      Reply
    • Arif Khair
      Arif Khair says:

      Mel & Joan – I’ve stayed authentic right through and never felt the need to put on a mask, despite influences to the contrary. I see it all around me and wonder – Is that the way to go through life?
      I’ve been communicating my thoughts and feelings with great conviction. I may have been direct and brash sometimes. And thanks to you Mel, for validating the same.
      Joan- You already know my views 🙂

      Reply
  3. marja
    marja says:

    Very interesting. I do feel very genuine myself, but I think you still can be genuine and use white lies. I learned this in the NZ culture and think it has its place. People in my own culture (Dutch) are very direct and say what they think. That has it’s advantages but it isn’t always healthy. I think avoiding criticism is very cultural. I’ve have learned in my new culture to focus more on the good and work on holding back my criticism.
    Although you might mean positive constructive criticism, which is of course the best.
    “If our primary education provided coursework how to achieve emotional intelligence and the skill set of genuine communication…” perfect I completely agree. A big lack in our education as it is basically important.

    Reply
    • Cheryl
      Cheryl says:

      Marja, you have discovered what my parents discovered when they moved from Australia to NZ many years ago. Despite growing up here (NZ), I didn’t realise until very recently how pervasive the ‘don’t offend anyone to their face’ culture is. A psychologist from overseas commented in a recent report something along the lines that my client (also from overseas) was more direct than the NZ culture could cope with, and she should not try to communicate with other agencies. Suddenly I realised what my own problem was, because I was brought up to be direct and honest and push myself and others to do better; but I was not taught how to do this in an oblique, supportive, tactful way. And no one told me the extent to which I was putting my foot in it, because they said it to each other behind my back because that’s what NZ culture is like.

      Reply
  4. Jeff Lapointe
    Jeff Lapointe says:

    This is a great article. I have been struggling with unveiling that “Authentic” me for years. The toughest part has been filtering through how the world operates behind its masks vs simply listening to myself and having courage that expressing those feelings or actions will still result in myself being ok.

    Do you have workshops on uncovering your authentic self? Or know of others? My journey has been long and self-indulged. Small truths coming out at a time.

    I also support your comments about having emotional awareness and education in school. Knowledge based education of right and wrong answers hardly begins to address the complexity and beauty of who we are.

    Thank you.
    Jeff

    Reply
  5. Stanley Holmes
    Stanley Holmes says:

    I appreciate and value your insight. I like that you give a hint at the end that valuing authenticity is in part a cultural/social problem, not just an individual responsibility. There seems to be a danger at focusing on our own authenticity if we don’t equally strive at allowing others to be authentic and respect their different opinions/culture/habits/authenticity.

    Some of the successful narcissistic people I have known were genuinely authentic (even if for some others their demeanor was a inauthentic protective facade). They were very eager on never holding on what they think, very proud of not being afraid of being disliked, and did not hide in any way their authentic contempt and feeling of superiority over most of their fellow human beings. Of course you already pointed that authenticity should not come at the expense of compassion or generosity, but I wonder if we should not go further: authenticity should be considered obnoxious if your neighbor has trouble developing its own, and you create disincentives for him to be authentic.

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Stanley,
      I appreciate your nuances and agree on one level that the “obnoxious” individual may indeed be acting authentically. That said, we can never know for their acerbic exterior may in some way be a protective mask. If one acts to subordinate or repress another, I’d offer that this behavior was coming from fear, not authenticity.

      Reply
  6. Brian
    Brian says:

    What if you genuinely dont like aspects of your “authentic self?” How do you even know if what you dont like is a part of your authentic self…could it be a manifestation of something else – like your woundedness perhaps?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Brian, My first thought is that if you are judging a part of yourself, both parts –the judge and the recipient — aren’t yet authentic. To reach authenticity you must not judge yourself, or the wound will still linger.

      Reply
  7. MALINI MUNDLE
    MALINI MUNDLE says:

    In Indian Ancient Wisdom the search for authenticity is the search for “WHO AM I?” To find and live this truth is to be at the cause of experience not at the effect of it. Living a reactive life is superficial. It is in bridging the gap between the outer persona and the inner self that thought word and deed are guided from inside out. But the bridge is often down because of man’s self protective, self preserving stance which comes from our inherited animal nature that keeps our ego and vital forces alive and kicking and which cannot be controlled with the ordinary mental state. Vulnerability would be the courage to say this is me warts and all. So what!

    Reply
  8. Gina
    Gina says:

    Thank you Mel, for this new thought provoking issue. As “Fear and insecurity are often at the core of anger.” …and of our resentments too. When we can open to genuine appreciation of what we are receiving (when it is more uncomfortable than dangerous), we make easier to get trustworthy behaviours. I don’t know how this affects our self-esteem but sometime it’s good nurture for our dignity.

    Reply
  9. Denise Wolf
    Denise Wolf says:

    Mel – I really appreciate your article. I agree with what you said. I left the corporate world to try to live a more authentic life. My question revolves around the ability to live an authentic life in a corporate world where your values are not aligned. Especially in today’s environment, where the option of changing jobs may or may not be available,
    I chose to compromise to survive in a company that had changed and realized the toll it took on my mind, body and spirit.

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Hi Denise,
      An excellent question that comes up often. The rigidity of most corporations may require behavior that seems inauthentic for you. Some people do as yu did and leave the corporate arena. Working for not for profits sometimes shifts the energy and of course many people opt when possible to follow an entrepreneurial route. Yet, within the corporate role and its demands upon you, its still essential to seek balance in your life. Stress reduction, pursuit of happiness with family and friends, activities that you enjoy all help. But most essentially learning to leave your work and upset at the office and not let it spill over into your precious personal life is essential.

      Reply
      • Ed
        Ed says:

        Mel,
        A pithy insight again.
        Just reflecting on your comments to Denise about taking home the work stress; this can be much harder than it sounds. In our ever connected world social networking sites bring our personal life to work and email and cell phones brings work in to personal space. The subliminal stress here is now we must be authentic to our whole life and not get away with “I was just obeying orders” when we are at work.
        Another poster picked up on note about it being a cultural issue and that can be our macro culture as well as the mini culture of any organization.
        To close with Sun Tzu “Know you enemy and know yourself and then your victories will be complete.”

        Reply
  10. KP
    KP says:

    sometimes i feel human mind/heart cant be trusted…its all covered with a mask….Many of these perceptions have to do with measuring ourselves against the values of the good or evil complex……Soren Kierkegaard rightly said “My either/or does not in the first instance denote the choice between good and evil; it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil or excludes them”…

    Reply
  11. susan scott
    susan scott says:

    Thank you for this and to all the other responders and yr replies to them Will bookmark and re-read.
    Talmud: The unexamined life is not worth living
    Socrates: the unexamined dream is like an un-opened letter

    Reply
  12. carlos
    carlos says:

    Thank you for the great article. What are the practical implications of this, though? What practical steps does one take to begin to live authentically?

    Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      That is a great and a large question Carlos. Ask yourself throughout your day, Am I being genuine in what I’m saying and doing? Am I seeking approval, avoiding disapproval, wearing a mask? If so, give yourself permission to just be..

      Reply
    • Mel Schwartz
      Mel Schwartz says:

      Carlos,
      sorry for the tardy response. Steps toward authenticity are many and diverse, but at the core a self-reflection whereby you ask yourself, am I being genuine? Are my words or actions sincere and unadulterated? Is fear or the need for approval influencing me?

      Reply
  13. Grace
    Grace says:

    One other mask I’ve noticed people hide behind, and I hate to say it, humor! Have known a number of “jokesters,” who always respond to shared comments, reflections, etc. with something funny, sarcastic, witty…. It really hides their true thoughts…and their inner selves….

    Reply

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