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.
Self-esteem or other-esteem?
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. This betrayal of our self is what I call other-esteem.
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.
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.