We all struggle with whatever “being authentic” means.
Being “true to yourself.”
Being authentic has ironically grown to become one of the biggest trends to desire and follow in modern day society, and I’d like to think that it was probably made a million times worse by our obsession with the internet — most notably the unlimited opportunities we have to carefully engineer our self-images and blast all our stuff out on social media.
From the tattoo and piercing-loving hipsters who stand out in a such an profoundly conformist way, to the top YouTubers who got their claim to fame by ranting and raving about celebrities and material things (or just filming themselves playing video games), it almost seems as if we’ve come full circle in the authentic expression trend of the 2010s to the point that much of it clearly reveals itself to be just an elaborate display of trend-inspired narcissism.
There was an Instagram account that blew up last year that I think really perfectly encompassed this ridiculous phenomenon.
Socality Barbie was created by a photographer who decided to make a parody of the very hipster-like Pacific Northwest lifestyle that many young adults love to capture and show off on Instagram — almost always tagging them with the hugely popular #LiveAuthentic tag and like a million other comparably trendy tags.
I just want to go on more adventures, be around good energy, connect with people, learn new things, grow. #vsco #vscocam #socality #liveauthentic #livefolk #kinfolk #visualcoop #getoutside #letsgosomewhere #neverstopexploring #exploreeverthing #exploremore #explore #adventure #lifeofadventure #pnw #pacificnorthwest #thatpnwlife #northwestisbest #thegeatpnw #greatnorthcollective #socalityportland #pdx #communityfirst #oregon #upperleftusa #peoplescreatives #wildernessculture #instagood #herpnwlife
An actual Barbie doll was cleverly staged and photographed to convey the sheer obscenity that it was anything but authentic to be seen dressed in plaid, wearing a toque (err, beanie), reading Kinfolk magazine, drinking coffee, hanging out in a forest setting, and adding Bible verses to her captions.
It was genius.
It was inspiring.
It made me LOL.
And then it made me think…
What the hell do I even know about authenticity anyway?
Maybe I’m not a total pro at being authentic, but I’ve come a long way since my early- to mid-20s when I was a deeply insecure, neurotic, attention-seeking millennial who just wanted to fit in and appear to not suck at life.
As someone who’s done a lot of personal development reading and implementation, I think I’ve learned enough about myself, about psychology, and about human behaviour to be able to identify some of the weird ways society skews “authenticity” into something it shouldn’t be.
According to science, authenticity is: “a complex psychological variable and relatively constant characterization of a personality.”
“Authenticity expresses the degree of a person’s self-identity and, at the same time, it shows how much is his behaviour towards his surrounding connected with his self-concept.”
In terms of how I experience it, I would say that authenticity is equal to living in integrity.
It’s a personal state of “genuineness” expressed both internally and externally according to one’s values.
What’s interesting about the scientific / psychological definition of authenticity mentioned above is that there’s this “self-identity” and “self-concept” component to it.
I think this is where a lot people get the whole authenticity thing really wrong.
“Self-identity” and “self-concept” might as well be code for “ego” these days, which pretty much turns authenticity into a game of self-importance.
And of course because self-identity / self-concept is merely just something we build for ourselves, we don’t even realize the ways in which we manipulate our own stories in order to inflate our self-importance.
Based on this, here are some of the most prominent observations I’ve personally seen exhibited by people who are trying to “be authentic,” yet often come off as totally self-serving in a very “crank up that ego” kind of way.
Wrong: Being authentic means wholeheartedly knowing and believing that your values and opinions are “more right” or “more good” than everybody else’s values and opinions.
I recently wrote an article for a website that has a very large vegan community, and I thought it would be okay to offer an animal product as a suggestion in this piece of writing for all the non-vegans out there (myself included).
One particular vegan reader decided to reach out and push their vegan views on me, as if that would somehow get me to see the world from their not-so-open-minded vegan point of view in such a persuasive way that would make me feel immediately inspired to cling on to it the same way that they do.
Believe me, I know that what vegans stand for is valid — from the cruel and unfair treatment of animals, to the potential health risks of eating animal products, to the ridiculous amount of greenhouse gas emissions that the meat industry is responsible for.
But these very real problems do not invalidate my personal choice for the time being to continue consuming animal products.
Truly authentic people do not hold their worldviews, beliefs, values, and everything else they stand for above those of others.
To be authentic means to know what you stand for, but it also means to be completely aware and open-minded enough to be accepting, respectful, and even empathetic towards every other person’s personal perspective — regardless of how much it goes against your own.
It means recognizing that the values and beliefs you hold for yourself only feel “right” and “good” to you because you’re you — while also knowing that right and wrong only exist through your own perceptive lens.
It’s knowing that you have your own story that makes you different from everybody else, but also knowing that your story is not more right or more good than everybody else’s stories.
Wrong: Being authentic means freely and unapologetically expressing yourself without caring about what other people think.
If you know what you stand for on an inner level, but you don’t convey it to the outside world out of fear of being judged and ridiculed, you’re not being authentic.
So this essentially means you have to stop caring about what other people think of you in order to bridge that gap between inner feelings and outer expression, right?
I’d say that the above statement is half correct.
After all, if we relied so much on other people’s judgments and opinions of ourselves for our own self-esteem, we’d have to suppress our true feelings in order to create a fake self-image that somehow (impossibly) satisfies everyone’s beliefs about how we should be.
So, yes, we do have to stop caring so much about what other people might think of us — to a certain extent.
Authenticity, however, doesn’t mean neglecting other people’s feelings and opinions in favour of your own, nor does it mean completely throwing somebody under the bus when the opportunity to stand your authentic ground arises.
Being authentic requires awareness of this role of a “self” you’re playing in this weird, physical dimension.
But with deeper awareness comes a lot of deeper self-inquiry too.
True authenticity, I think, involves maintaining a state of groundedness and connectedness in knowing that we are all equally worthy of love and respect, which has to mean we also care about what other people think of us too.
It’s this knowing of human connectedness that makes us care.
So, no — don’t care about what other people think of you from a neurotic and insecure state of desiring approval.
But at the same time, you must care about what other people think of you because we’re all human, we’re all connected, and deep down we’re all the same.
Wrong: Being authentic gives you permission to be an asshole.
Not caring what other people think goes hand in hand with just being completely inconsiderate.
Truthfully, I think that there are a lot of people who are trying to be assertive about what they stand for, yet forget (or don’t know how) to appropriately connect / respect / empathize with people at the same time — so then they just end up acting like selfish and tactless jerkfaces.
There was this weird article recently published by the New York Times titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice that mentioned a guy who decided to just start being “totally authentic” as an experiment:
“He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him.
He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead.
He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring.”
Clearly, I thought, this guy had no idea what it meant to be authentic.
Being authentic does not equal blurting out every single thought that crosses your mind, even if it’s true to you.
This is a total violation of human connectedness and demonstrates a complete lack of emotional intelligence.
I was very happy to read some of the comments of this article that backed up my impression and opinion of this ridiculous article.
The top commenter (Anne-Marie Hislop) put exactly what I thought into words very beautifully, so I’ll quote her here:
“To me being authentic does not mean that one tosses all social norms and skills in the interest of turning one’s insides out.
Rather, being authentic can include social awareness, sensitivity to the feelings of others, and solid boundaries between what one chooses to keep private and what one makes public.
As to your authentic self never giving a TED talk, in my view an authentic self acknowledges (perhaps even shares) a fear of speaking in public.
To do so is real, yet the authentic self also has a passion for sharing knowledge and was able to tip the balance between the two.”
Right on, Anne-Marie.
Authenticity and awareness / acknowledgement of the truth go hand in hand, but authenticity and kindness are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Be authentic, but don’t let that turn you into an asshole.
Wrong: Being authentic means being able to successfully defend everything you stand for.
We all know those people who get really riled up when something they really care about or something they deeply believe in is challenged by somebody else’s opposite opinion.
You can just smell their emotional tenderness as they try to forcefully explain themselves in an effort to invalidate the opinions and judgments of others, failing to realize that what they’re doing only exasperates their insecurity.
When you try to defend something you REALLY like or REALLY believe in, all you’re doing is trying to convince yourself that you really do like it, or that you really do believe in it — even though it totally sounds and appears as if you’re trying to convince other people of this.
Oftentimes defensiveness can even act as a tool for us to ridicule or belittle others, which in turn lifts us up in our own minds.
As human beings with larger egos than we even realize, our minds are fueled by our emotions so much so that we end up putting energy only into what we think benefits or threatens us.
You wouldn’t care what other people thought or said if you weren’t so unsettled about something that affected you so deeply.
Defensiveness is nothing but the activation of protection mode upon detecting a threat to your sense of self.
It’s also a failure to be aware of and accept the real truth that there is no right or wrong thing to stand for — there is only perspective.
If you have to defend yourself (actions, beliefs, values, opinions), then you’re not really being authentic, because defensiveness is a reaction that come from an unconscious and emotional state of insecurity.
Truly authentic people are unfazed by other people’s judgments and opinions because they’re aware of the nature of perspective and they’re secure enough in knowing that their perspective is uniquely theirs, and that’s what serves them best.
Wrong: You can always tell when someone is being authentic and when someone is being an egotistical narcissist.
EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US loves to psychoanalyze everybody else.
We do it in an instant — in person upon first impressions and especially when we look at what other people post on social media.
We often decide that people are showing off, acting out, being fake, or whatever else might suggest inauthentic behaviour.
It certainly might appear that way to us at first glance, because we form our opinions of other people based on our own experiences and beliefs about ourselves plus the world around us — and our minds are masters at doing that in a mere matter of seconds.
We are hopelessly biased and dogmatic creatures in more ways than we even know.
The fact is, we can never know if someone else is acting out of authentic integrity or if they’re just putting on a show.
Even if we could build enough awareness to view someone else through an unfiltered lens just as they are without applying any of the probably trillions of views and beliefs we have about what they’re doing, we still could never know.
Because we can never get inside another person’s head and experience their version of reality.
The individual is the only one who can ever know if they are being authentic or not.
Even the best psychiatrist in the world could never truly know what’s really going on inside another person’s mind or what their state of awareness is.
So next time you pass judgment on another person’s seemingly inauthentic behaviour, see if you can remove all of the automatic decisions your mind makes about them immediately for a second to see if you can look at them through more of an unfiltered lens.
Maybe they are being authentic after all.
Wrong: Being authentic means you finally found “yourself.”
This one’s a doozie.
Stay with me here.
You probably know that even when you think you’re being yourself, you’re still kind of questioning whether you’re really being yourself.
Sometimes it can get so bad or happen frequently enough that we catch a nasty case of imposter syndrome (something I’ll cover more in a future blog post) that we feel totally inadequate and incompetent despite having proof of adequacy and competency in the form of current skills and talents, past achievements, praise/admiration from others, and so on.
This is normal.
I think everyone experiences imposter syndrome at least once in their lifetime — even the most confident people.
But it sort of begs us to ask the question, what is this “self” we’re trying to latch onto?
It’s like there’s a fixed orb or platform called “SELF” floating in some obscure dimension that we so desperately feel the need to ground ourselves in, but self-doubt and general neurotic thinking sort of keeps it out of reach.
This would be an interesting time to point out that there are actually all sorts of scientists and spiritual teachers out there proposing the idea that this sense of “self” we all feel and try to develop in our human lives is actually a complete illusion.
The idea here is that the self is merely a creation of the mind and exists only to serve survival, but it does not exist in outer reality.
Depressing idea, right?
So, according to this, what you clearly feel right now as someone who exists as a separate and unique “soul” like the special snowflakes we all love to think we are is actually not real in nature.
If this is truth, this sense of self that we feel is just kind of a free-flowing chunk of consciousness vibrating at some kind of frequency as a smaller part of whole consciousness — a.k.a. the stuff that makes up/takes up everythingness and nothingness in the entire universe.
To get super metaphorical here, I like to think of it as if we’re all falling raindrops in our human lives that started out as one in the form of a cloud (before birth) and will end as one in the form of a puddle (after death).
The more I live in my body and my mind and the more I work on expanding my own awareness through practicing mindfulness, doing a daily meditation, studying/observing my own psychology, and basically questioning everything — the more this weirdly abstract idea of no self seems to seriously be rooted in truth.
Have you ever stood up too fast after sitting for a long time and felt like you were floating through space and time?
Have you ever woken up from a ridiculously deep state of REM sleep (not dream state sleep) and come to the profound realization that everything including yourself basically ceased to exist while in that deep state?
Have you ever fainted and then felt your sense of self start rebooting as you gain consciousness like a computer harnessing electricity to turn on?
Have you ever felt so deeply connected to nature, to another person, to a pet, or even to an inanimate object, that you basically felt like you both existed as one?
Have you ever held a newborn baby that was less than 24 hours old and been blown away by how pure and unaltered human consciousness could be?
Have you ever walked into a nursing home and seen elderly people who are clearly alive, but prisoners of their own deteriorating minds?
It’s experiences and questions like these that make me wonder, wow, WHAT EVEN AM I?
AM I EVEN A “THING”?
Look, I’m not trying to convince you to believe that there’s no such thing as a self.
What I would like to open your mind up to, however, is the idea that there is no “core” self to try to latch onto — because the self that you are is really just an elaborate construction of the stories you create in your mind about who you do and don’t want to be (consciously or subconsciously), and the way in which you tell yourself these stories is based on the sum of all your life experiences and also how your brain is wired.
I think that’s worth repeating:
Your sense of self is just the stories your mind tells to itself about a “you” that it has to create.
If you are just the stories you create, then authenticity is never in a fixed state or idea of how you have to be — it’s always changing.
You probably show different sides of yourself to different people anyway (we all do) and question how you can become so different according to where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re hanging out with.
You have a version of yourself you portray when you talk on the phone, a version of yourself you portray when you’re visiting your parents, a version of yourself you portray when you’re at work, a version of yourself you portray when you’re with your kids, a version of yourself you portray when you’re with your friends, and the list goes on.
Authenticity can exist in every side of yourself that you choose to show, but I think this is a nice bit of proof that demonstrates how the self you think you are is a lot more fluid and dynamic than you initially thought.
It has to be, because if it weren’t, you’d never grow.
“Being authentic” will always be a confusing concept to apply to life.
To sum it up based on all of the above, here are the main points I’d say we’d all do really well to keep in mind if authenticity is something we’d like to cultivate:
- Identify your deepest values, but recognize and respect that other people have their own values too.
- Live according to your values to serve yourself first rather than to fulfill the expectations of others, but not in a way where you completely sacrifice your desire and need for human connection.
- Be expressive and assertive about what you stand for, but not at the expense of other people’s feelings.
- Be aware of different perspectives expressed by other people that may conflict with yours, but stay solid in knowing that yours is yours and theirs is theirs so that you don’t feel the need to get defensive.
- Don’t be quick to judge someone for seeming inauthentic because you can never truly know how they perceive themselves and the world from their state of mind.
- Tell stories about yourself to yourself that you like and want to be in order to create the self-identity you long for.
I will continue to struggle (probably) with being authentic as much as I did writing this blog post.
It’s so much more complex than saying: hey dude, just be real.
After all, we are complex creatures.
I think that’s beautiful.
A trend can grow to become something that becomes a part of your authenticity, and authenticity can grow to become a trend.
What a weird and wonderful world we live in.
Photo via Incase
- 30 glorious snippets of wisdom worth knowing by the time you’re 30 (or any age, really) - December 31, 2016
- The divided self: Why we care way too much about what other people think - August 14, 2016
- What everyone gets wrong about “being authentic” - July 3, 2016
- 7 eye-opening ways to forget about your goals so you can let happiness flow - June 20, 2016
- Why you won’t do all the things you want to do this summer - June 13, 2016
- 50 everyday things you can give up to make time for more important stuff - April 30, 2016
- How to go from waking up miserable to exhilarated every morning - April 18, 2016
- How to align your mind to get exactly what you want - April 3, 2016
- Why we’re so bad at sticking to good habits (and what to do about it) - March 19, 2016
- 6 useful tips for dealing with an all-around bad day - June 30, 2015