Become Who You’ve Always Been
Admission: I’m immersed in readings on authenticity. It’s my theme word for 2022, and I have decided to learn as much as I can about it. Particularly, I’m interested in why it has become so hard for us to be our true selves in a world that is in deep need of authentic people.
I often wonder whether our ancient ancestors struggled with authenticity as much as we do today. What I know is that we were born authentic. “We don’t need to teach a newborn infant to be authentic,” says Stephen Joseph in his book, Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why it Matters. “As infants, we are in tune with what is going on inside us.” Of course, infants are not at a stage where they are self-aware. That all starts to change around 18 months, and the fragility of authenticity starts to show cracks. Not only can toddlers begin to display inauthentic emotions, but they can also detect inauthenticity in others.
By the time a child is six, they have learned that it can be socially appropriate to be inauthentic. Remember when you received a toy you didn’t want during a gift swap at school or from grandma? But you were taught to smile and express your gratitude. Yep – it starts there.
It’s true, some inauthenticity is socially acceptable and frankly, the right thing to do. Anyone who says they are 100% authentic all the time, is either not self-aware or they are being inauthentic. Haha. Okay, that’s not really funny. None of us is completely authentic in all situations. So, let’s start with that truth.
Why are People Inauthentic?
What I’m interested in learning is when a pattern or lifestyle of inauthenticity rules so much of our behavior that we no longer know who we are at our core. I’m interested because unless we can be our truest self, we will never experience the happiness and fulfillment we deserve in life.
So why are people inauthentic? No one wants to be a façade. You ask most people, and they will list authenticity as one of the top character traits of “good” people. We all value people who are sincere, open and honest, and trustworthy.
Psychologist Carl Rogers, who Joseph cites throughout his book, understood that we all have basic psychological needs (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). First, we have a need to be agents in writing our own stories and determining our destinies. Joseph said,
“Human beings are storytellers constantly creating a picture of themselves. Along the way the picture becomes a mask.”
The second need is the need for belonging. We want to have a positive self-image, we want others to like us, and we want to fit in. I’m sure there are several other reasons why people are inauthentic (i.e., manipulation), but the crux of it lies in our need to be accepted by others and to belong.
The question then becomes why do we believe that being our authentic selves means we won’t be accepted? Because too often people are in relationships, familial, collegial, and intimate, where love and acceptance are conditional. Joseph said,
“To some extent or other we all pick up the rules for how to be, whether we learn that we must be attractive, popular, sporty, tidy, respectful, funny – whatever it is we learn that we must do to belong or be loved. It is in this way that children begin doing whatever it takes to please others. Our need to belong is so strong that, while we are children, it suppresses our need for agency. In short, we work so hard at doing what it takes to please others that we fail to learn about ourselves and our own directions in life.”
I simply must stop there, or I will end up quoting the entire book. This authenticity thing is not what it appears on the surface. There are layers to peel back that extend to our childhoods. Doesn’t everything?
One solution is that we need to have relationships that are unconditional. Unconditional relationships are those where we feel free to have agency in our lives and where we can be ourselves without a threat of losing love or support. If you are a parent to little ones, or even big ones, that statement was worth reading this article. And people leaders, spouses and partners – everyone!
How can we provide unconditional love and acceptance to others, so they grow in agency and belonging and not suppress their authentic selves?
How Can People Become More Authentic?
We now know that a main reason we are prone to inauthenticity is because we want to belong. When love and acceptance are conditioned, it rocks our feelings of self-worth, and we construct a narrative of ourselves that will make it easier for us to fit in and receive what we need. But it can come at a significant cost to our autonomy and happiness and fulfillment.
So, what can we do? We can return to who we were at our origin story. As Joseph said, infants are in tune with themselves and what is going on inside them. Let’s start there. Spending time listening to the wisdom of our inner voices can bring us back to true selves. Stop listening to what’s popular, the noisiness of what others have to say, and start listening to your inner wisdom. Check in with yourself, first. Simply ask yourself, “How do I feel about that?” or “What do I think or believe about that situation?” The more you listen to yourself and trust your inner wisdom, the easier it will be to show up as your authentic self.
Another way to become more authentic is to accept yourself. We’re so busy waiting to receive from others what we have not always given to ourselves. And third, self-acceptance happens more easily when we know ourselves. Know Thyself.
Here are three exercises I’ve modified from Joseph’s book for the sake of time. Try these to grow in self-knowledge:
Exercise #1: Understanding Your Name
What does your name mean? Were you named after another family member? Does your name hold special significance in your family? Do you like your name? If you had a choice (you do have a choice), would you keep your name or change it? If you’d like to change your name, what would you change to and why?
This part is totally mine: Write your name and create the meaning of your name that you’d like to embody. You have the agency to create what your name means in this world and how your name can become synonymous with your truest self.
Exercise #2: People You Admire
Who do you respect the most? These may be people you know personally, people in the public, or people from history. Think of three people you admire. What is it about them you admire?
This gives you insight into some of the qualities you value and would like to see more in yourself.
Exercise #3: Identify Your Most Authentic Relationships
Think about how authentic you are in different relationships, such as that of mother, father, wife, husband, a role at work or with a group of friends. Choose three important relationships in your life and then ask yourself if you agree with these statements for each of the relationships:
- I experience being in this relationship as meaningful and valuable to me.
- I have freely chosen to be in this relationship.
- I can be myself in this relationship.
- I feel valued in this relationship.
Did you agree with each of the statements for all three relationships? If not, you may need to face reality that some relationships do not serve you. Even if you feel you can’t end a relationship, you can decide which relationships might be more deserving of your time and energy and which ones are not.
In conclusion, I welcome you on this journey of learning more about authenticity. Authentic people are happier, healthier, and more fulfilled in life.
Note: The quotes and exercises are from Stephen Joseph’s book, Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why it Matters, unless otherwise noted. I highly recommend this book.
Now, I leave you with a quote that I shared in this month’s newsletter by one of my favorite educators, activists, and thinkers, Parker Palmer –
“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been.”
Authenticity is a journey. It feels a bit circular in some ways, taking us back “home to ourselves” and further deepening our self-knowledge, self-acceptance, agency, and belonging. I can’t imagine living the rest of my life any other way.
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With love and authenticity,
Learn My Story